How to Exercise Your Brain

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Brain health is important to our overall happiness for the simple reason that the brain is who we are. Our perception of the world and reality originates in the brain. Our ideas, our emotions, our memories are all in the brain. Our humanity, our spirituality, our relationships with others—everything begins with the brain. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a good life if their brain is physically unhealthy or cognitively weak.

How to Exercise Your Brain

Keeping our minds fit has to be one of the major objectives throughout life. The best way to do this is to seek meaningful mental effort and stimulation on a regular basis. This often begins with education, no matter our age. Education provides more interesting and challenging career choices and more stimulating leisure activities, which are central in building the cognitive reserves that protect us later.

Those who are already on a career track should pursue any job-related educational opportunities possible. The stimulation of interesting hobbies and travel also strongly benefit the mind and build cognitive strength.

For most people, the critical element in long-term brain health is taking on the most challenging work possible. Studies have shown that regardless of our field of expertise, the most important element in building cognitive strength is the overall complexity (which often translates into difficulty) of the occupation. The greater the number of years spent at complex work, the greater the cognitive benefit.

Cumulatively, education plus challenging work can reduce the odds of Alzheimer’s by as much as two-thirds.

“Our humanity, our spirituality, our relationships with others—everything begins with the brain. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a good life if their brain is physically unhealthy or cognitively weak.”

When to Exercise Your Brain

The fact that it takes many years of effort to build up significant cognitive reserves means that we all need to start as soon as possible. By the time the signs of cognitive decline are visible, the physical health of the brain has also deteriorated. Cognitive stimulation then can help offset decline to a modest degree.

It’s the difference between walking several miles a day throughout life versus walking a few hundred feet near the end of life. Everything helps, but nothing helps like a lifetime of physical or mental challenge.

Why Brain Exercise Is More Important Than Ever

Another emerging concern is that life now has many “auto-assist” features that reduce cognitive effort. Today, for instance, cars are run by computers; they have systems that alert us to danger ahead, behind, or to the side. They have navigational systems that take us to our destinations. The mental effort of driving and many other aspects of life have been greatly reduced by technology.

In many ways, this is good: Cars are much safer now, for one thing. But we have to ensure we take on other mental challenges to make up the difference.

Just as we now realize that our sedentary lives require us to go to the gym to get enough exercise for our body, we also need regular exercise for our brain.

Daily life does not provide enough stimulation or mental variety to keep the brain at its mental peak. Computer-based cognitive training programs provide the same “toning” benefits to the mind that good exercise programs provide to the body. These programs should include individualization and a steady increase in difficulty as we improve. Such programs should be scientifically validated.

The Goal of Exercising Your Brain

The goal of cognitive training is not to get better on computer tests or games but to improve our actual functioning in the real world.

In one study that provides a simple example, a set of elderly patients who had difficulty walking were given brain-training exercises. Within a few months of brain training, they had greatly improved their walking skills. The increase in overall cognitive capacity could be applied to their motor skills, which had worsened with age. The goal is to build broad cognitive capacity that can be used in many ways.

Who Should Exercise Their Brain

Men and women both benefit in exactly the same way from cognitive trainig and from a work and lifestyle that improves cognitive fitness.

The one difference comes from the fact that women, in general, have smaller brains than men. This does not mean that men are smarter. But it does mean that they have more available wiring on which brain functions can be rerouted when the brain physically is damaged by disease or trauma.

It’s essential for women to develop their cognitive reserves to their full potential because they don’t begin with as much in the way of physical reserves. Men cannot count on that physical reserve alone, however; with the brain, as with the body, function is a matter of use it or lose it.

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Shlomo BreznitzShlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway are the authors of Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom (Ballantine, June 2012).

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