It’s common for people to spend hours every week working out their bodies in the gym. What’s more unusual, though, is for them to pay the same attention to the strength of their minds.
Yet people are living longer than ever before, and it’s increasingly common for bodies to remain healthy and strong long after minds have begun to deteriorate.
What can be done? Well, thankfully, there are a lot of ways to keep stretching your mental abilities, keeping your brain from losing cognitive capacity as you age and even increasing your acuity.
Just as with bodily health, of course, the first and most important factors include good nutrition and adequate sleep. But there are also small things you can do every day to give yourself a mind workout and keep yourself sharp!
Reading, Writing, and Language Learning
Spend time everyday reading. Even just short newspaper articles help, but if you read at a level that you find just a little challenging, it will force your brain to get used to new ways of thinking and speaking.
The language and reasoning centers of your brain are strengthened by puzzling through new ideas, by learning new vocabulary, and by encountering even everyday things being said in new ways.
You will also exercise these parts of your brain by taking the time to learn and memorize new vocabulary words, whether in your language or another. And speaking of other languages, learning one is perhaps the very best way to strengthen your mind.
Not only does it force your brain to form new pathways for expression, but it helps you see your own language differently, making you aware of how it fits ideas and words together. You can even practice new languages a little bit everyday with readily available apps for your phone or tablet.
Finally, writing every day, whether it’s poetry, a blog, or a journal, will exercise both your fine motor and cognitive skills, giving you the opportunity to keep in practice articulating and expressing your thoughts—a process that helps develop the skills of thinking themselves.
Playing the little brain-games that come in your daily newspaper or are readily available online, from Sudoku or crossword puzzles to chess, gives you practice in logical thinking, geometrical imagination, and understanding how things fit together.
This doesn’t always have to take linguistic or mathematical forms. Chess involves both strategy and thinking ahead to imagine different spatial configurations of the pieces; other strategy games also improve your reasoning ability.
There are even lots of websites that offer small, quick games and puzzles that you can play on the subway or on your lunchbreak at work that are designed by cognitive scientists to help improve specific reasoning skills.
Arts and Crafts
It may sound corny, but learning and practicing the arts will stimulate the emotional and nonverbal parts of your brain, whether you like painting, sculpture, music, or pottery. It also exercises your ability for spatial reasoning, whether by grappling with the complexities of perspective while composing a painting or photograph or trying to fold a tiny origami creature.
Art pushes your brain activity into new patterns and activates the parts of it that are perceive colors, shapes, textures, and sounds. It requires very different thought processes than the linear, often very automatic ones that you use to get through the day at work or school.
Vary Your Routine
Your brain comes alive when it has to grapple with new places, sights, sounds, textures, and situations, while habits let muscle memory and routine thought processes take over. Find small ways to vary your daily routine will make different parts of your brain switch into high gear, experiencing things or figuring out how to do things in new ways.
For example, you can try writing or even brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand to challenge your fine motor skills and coordination, making your brain re-learn basic processes and navigate new situations.
You can try entering the subway from a different direction or driving by a different street on your daily commute. Similarly, changing the arrangement of the things in your bedroom or house will force your brain to keep learning new patterns and interpreting new set-ups.
Whether it’s a song, a poem, or a grocery list, memorizing something will test your recall and force you to exercise your memory.
This is a set of cognitive skills that gets neglected all too often in a world in which our personal electronic devices keep track of all of our phone numbers and appointments, as well as allowing us to look up the answer to any question we want.
By making yourself remember the exact words to something, you exercise both your long-term memory and your pattern-recognition abilities. Plus, if you memorize poems, songs, or even random facts, you might be able to dazzle your friends later—or shine at your local trivia night or karaoke bar!
Make New Friends
Speaking of dazzling your friends, it’s good for your brain to take the time to make new ones and speak to strangers. Such interactions draw on your cognitive, emotional, and linguistic abilities, as well as the patter-recognition and social areas of your brain that help you decode other people’s subtle social and emotional cues and navigate the pitfalls of conversation.
Thankfully, you don’t have to take as much time out of your day to give yourself a mind workout as you do to work out your body. Since you use your brain all day,just doing small things indifferent ways can give it the exercise it needs and keep it alert, active, and engaged.
But you can also enrich your life in other ways, as music, art, and making new friends tend to do. Whichever of these tactics you can fit into your day, paired with a balanced diet and lots of rest, will help keep you super sharp and ready for anything, well into your old age.