When it comes to brain health, experts agree that the old adage “use it or lose it” is applicable. Mental exercise, like physical exercise, is very important. This is especially true as you age.
Exercise for mental health will help with memory skills and keep you sharp and focused. And depending on the types of exercises you do, they are also important for learning empathy, compassion and tolerance.
As a life-long learner, I am an avid believer in cognitive training and continuing your education (formal or informal). A couples years after finishing medical school and my emergency room residency, I started looking for new business ventures. Only to realize that I knew nothing about business. So I went back to school and got my MBA and then my Law Degree.
After going back to school, I realized how important it is to continually challenge yourself and your mind.
By constantly learning new information through formal and informal schooling, I developed new pathways and allowed my brain to develop and grow.
The Human Brain
The human brain is not hardwired at birth. There are many instances where the brain can be reprogrammed. This rewiring process is called neural plasticity.
If you are always learning and participating in mentally stimulating activities throughout your life, you will be able to create new neural pathways and strengthen your neural plasticity.
Your learning doesn’t have to be formal, but it should be constant. Anything that challenges you to evaluate and expand your current mental constructs leads to the formation of new neural pathways.
How the brain ages
As we age, our brains shrink and blood flow to the brain slows. Nerve cells can then shrink and lose connection with other nerve cells in the brain. The brains’ cognitive reserve, the ability to withstand neurological damage due to aging, diminishes. As that reserve is diminished, it will be more difficult to perform simple mental tasks. There is also a higher risk of stroke and dementia.
A 2010 study found that cognitive training has the potential to improve cognitive function in older adults and slow decline in individuals with dementia. However, no studies have shown that brain exercises actually prevents dementia. Since this is a relatively new area of research, most studies are still too small and short to test the effect of mental exercise on the development of cognitive decline or dementia.
Multiple studies are being conducted to see the effects of cognitive training on the aging brain.
The benefits of mental exercise
Exercise for mental health has benefits that are far reaching. People who engage in mentally stimulating activities throughout their life will have a slower rate of mental decline. Mental exercises help strengthen memory skills and keep the mind sharp and focused as you age.
Not only is cognitive training beneficial for keeping your memory sharp as you age, but it also helps with less physical attributes, like empathy, tolerance and gratitude. I found that the more I learn, the more tolerant, grateful and accepting I become. By furthering your education, reading, learning, traveling and expanding your horizons, your tolerance, empathy and compassion grows.
Some of the best mental exercises will leave you feeling refreshed and exhilarated. And depending on what brain exercises you choose, you may even feel tired or mentally fatigued. That is okay. Learning a new language or instrument, working on a crossword puzzle or traveling can all be tiring activities. Take your time and push yourself to overcome your boundaries and limitations.
Mental exercise can take many forms. They can be physical activities that you get you out of your comfort zone, social gatherings or brain games.
13 Brain Exercise Games and Activities to Keep You Sharp: Examples of Mental Exercise
- Learn to play a musical instrument. A couple of years ago, I decided it was time I learned to play the guitar. So I took lessons and practiced. What instrument have you always wanted to play? The cello? The piccolo? Find an instructor and go for it.
- Learn a foreign language. Have you always wanted to speak a second language? Or third or fourth? Is there a specific country you travel to often and would love to know the language? There are classes available everywhere, online and in person.
- Socialize with friends and family. While it may sound odd, socializing and engaging with others is a great way to expand your mind. You are learning and thinking. And spending time with others is always good for your mental health.
- Try memory games. Memorize a list of items. Then see how much you can remember an hour later. Test your recall.
- Join a group or start a book club. Similar to socializing with friends, joining a group will get you engaging with people and it involves something you are interested in. It can be a sports group, a book club, a chess club — there are endless options.
- Do a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. Try “The New York Times” crossword puzzle, buy a Sudoku book or start a jigsaw puzzle. These mentally stimulating activities are a fun way to pass the time and they will get you thinking and problem-solving.
- Start a new hobby. Is there something that you’ve always wanted to learn or try? How to garden, make model airplanes, learn to blow glass or knit. There is an endless array of possibilities. Don’t limit yourself. All it takes is a little research, some work and passion.
- Meditate or practice mindfulness. Meditation helps reduce stress and anxiety, increase creativity, develop intuition, increase focus and concentration and brings clarity and peace of mind. All of these mental aspects are important as you age. While it may sound odd to count this as a mentally stimulating activity, think about the work it takes to clear your mind and focus on the here and now.
- Read. I read or listen to an audio book every day. Not only am I learning, but it is also a great way to relax or spend a car ride (if you are listening). Read history, biographies, sci-fi, memoirs — anything that excites you to pick up a book.
- Take a cooking class. I love to cook, so cooking classes have always been fun for me. If you don’t like cooking, that’s okay. Cooking classes are a great way to get your feet wet, learn the basics and get a delicious meal at the end.
- Travel. Travel to new places and see how other people live, talk to them, learn from them. Whenever I travel, I am constantly learning from the people I meet and the places I go. Traveling is a mentally stimulating activity. It is exhilarating and it will keep you on your toes.
- Learn a new sport. Growing up I was not the most athletically gifted, however, that never stopped me from trying a new sport. I played basketball, boxed and threw discus for track and field. And a couple of years ago, I got into triathlons and competed in my first Half Iron Man. You don’t have to be the best, but is it a great way to get in some physical activity while learning.
- Go back to school or take a class you are interested in. While formal schooling isn’t necessary for mental exercise, it is a great way to learn new things and grow your knowledge base. You can take an online course, enroll in a community college class or go back to school to get your Bachelor’s, Master’s or Ph.D.
Pick your favorite mental activity and go for it
Like physical exercise, mental exercise is vital for your health and well being. There are so many options when it comes to mental exercise, find what works best for you. Or better yet, find a couple.
These kind of activities aren’t all or nothing and they are not something you have to do every single day. Start by taking 30 minutes whenever you have time and read a new book or pick up an instrument. The key is to practice and learn throughout your life.
For more, check out my upcoming book The Real Man Plan.