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Activities That Work Out Your Brain

Testing your mind in some specific ways now can help keep it sharp for years to come
Written by 
Canyon Ranch Staff
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

What’s the best way to keep a muscle healthy and strong? Challenge it. The same can be said for your brain, and certain types of activities do a particularly good job of keeping your mind on its proverbial toes.

It’s no secret that your brain changes with time, and that the possible effects of these developments—sluggish thought processing, memory loss—can be quite dramatic. Inspiring, but perhaps surprising news: That doesn’t have to be what aging looks like. Yes, genetics can play into your future mental health, and they are out of your control. But aside from this, and when disease is not already at play, your brain’s health largely hinges on how active you keep it. Simply put, the more stimulated it is, the more it adapts to make you capable of engaging in what you’re tasking it with.

Activities like crosswords and piano playing (among others) require a certain level of mental gymnastics that can “light up” different regions of the brain, encouraging not just the number of interactions between your neurons, but the strength of those connections. They can even grow—that’s right, we said grow—certain parts of the brain by encouraging the birth of healthy new brain cells. That’s quite a payoff for doing things that you’d usually gravitate to just for fun. Consider putting these brain-bending activities on your to do list:

Pick Up an Instrument

Pull out your viola from grade school. Sit down at that baby grand. Because playing an instrument requires you to simultaneously read and process notes, convert that “language” into action, and listen to and judge the beautiful output that results, the regions of your brain responsible for motor, auditory and visuo-spatial skills interact every time you play. The more this happens, the stronger and healthier those neural connections get. And since playing music requires you to store audio information (like the beat you’re playing along to, for example), it forces your short-term or working memory to be more active too, improving your recall.

Learn a Language

It’s worth brushing up on your French 101 skills: Several lobes of the brain play a starring role in helping you not only retain the rules and meanings of a new language, but understand it when you hear or read it, and determine how to respond in turn. This coordinated effort can actually change your brain structure, growing certain areas, including your hippocampus (involved in absorbing new material) and several parts of the cerebral cortex (your gray matter, which is responsible for memory, reasoning, thought and other functions). Plus, alternating between languages can improve your ability to focus and shift between tasks, training your brain to stay nimble when it comes to quick thinking.

Partake in Brain Games

There’s already a three in this Sodoku row, so what number belongs here? This puzzle piece looks like which part of the photo?

These and other head-scratchers, like crosswords, word searches and trivia, help generate new brain cells and fortify existing neural connections involved in reasoning, memory and the ability to process, store and retrieve information quickly and efficiently. Others, like Scrabble and chess, can help improve your ability to think ahead. Even daily reading can work out your brain by engaging the parts responsible for vision, language and associative learning, strengthening the fibers that carry information from one part of the brain to another.

Take a Dance Class

Just like any workout, getting your groove on increases blood flow to the brain, which delivers oxygen and nutrients that keep tissue healthy. But putting together dance moves also activates areas in the brain that control motor skills and coordination, as well as your spatial awareness. As your brain absorbs your instructor’s demonstration, the frontal lobe begins planning how to mirror her movements. Your primary motor cortex (located at the top of your brain) is then signaled to send those learnings to the muscles that put your body in motion. And as you dance, your muscles send signals back to your brain, helping you refine your balance and coordination. This well-orchestrated effort keeps your neurons active and strong.

Play to Your Non-Strengths

Though you have two hands, you favor the use of one. Though you have five senses, some are put to use more than others. “Playing favorites” keeps certain nerve pathways in your brain quite active, leaving others a little less so. To stimulate those that may be underused (and even grow new brain cells as a result), try a unique system of exercises called Neurobics. The gist? Engage with the world around you in ways that may not come so easy. For example: If you’re a righty, your ability to control a pen comes from your brain’s left hemisphere. Switch it up and try writing with your left hand (even if the end product is illegible) to instead engage the right hemisphere. Or, try getting dressed with your eyes closed to flex the parts of your brain that respond to touch, instead of what you see. 

Reference(s) 
Alzheimer's Association
Nature Reviews | Neuroscience (August 2010)
Neurobiology of Aging