Everyone knows that physical exercise is important for maintaining overall health, managing weight and looking and feeling great at any age. But did you know that your brain needs exercise, too?
Most of us don’t think of our brains as an organ that needs care and attention, like we do our heart, lungs, and skin. Instead, many think our brain is somehow beyond our control or influence. In fact, some of us don’t think about it at all until something goes wrong, like an injury or disease such as dementia or Alzheimer’s occurs.
However, the reality is your brain needs just as much—if not more—exercise and attention than the rest of your body to keep it sharp, healthy, and functioning at its very best throughout your lifetime. After all, it is the supreme vital organ, controlling every other bodily function.
The problem is that few understand why you should exercise your brain, and even fewer know how to properly do it. To help uncover the mystery, here are three reasons to do brain exercises, and some tips on how to do it right.
Why You Should Exercise your Brain
1. Boosts mental capacity
If you lift weights correctly, you enhance connective tissue in the muscles to make them stronger. Likewise, if you exercise your brain correctly, you enhance connective tissue between the neurons in your brain to help them function better and faster.
This phenomenon, called neuroplasticity, is the brain’s unique way of growing and expanding its capacity. By challenging your brain with well-designed exercises, you can actually improve and retain neuroplasticity to overcome the natural decline in cognitive function that occurs with age.
In fact, an NIH analysis of several cognitive training studies concluded that cognitive training confers a consistent benefit on cognitive functions that can be protective against cognitive decline. Even exercises conducted over just 10 hours in one year showed measurable benefits 5 years later.
2. Improves memory
Challenging your brain to learn new things forces your brain to work harder, increasing memory capacity. In one fascinating 2006 study, London taxi drivers were found to have a larger hippocampus—the area responsible for forming and accessing memories—than London bus drivers.
The theory: taxi drivers are continually challenged to navigate thousands of streets and landmarks on demand, while bus drivers follow a prescribed route. As a result, the hippocampus and memory capacity in taxi drivers grows larger in reaction to the constant stimulation.
3. Postpones cognitive decline
While there may be very little we can do to actually prevent cognitive decline, engaging in stimulating activities can help you live longer before the onset of symptoms.
A controversial study published in 2010, triggered a wave of headlines that claimed brain exercise may worsen Alzheimer’s disease. But what the study actually revealed was that, among those who participated in brain training exercises and subsequently developed Alzheimer’s disease, the rate of disease progression was accelerated, but the onset of symptoms was delayed. In other words, these individuals lived longer symptom-free and spent less time living with dementia.
For many, living longer before the onset of symptoms and suffering through a rapid decline is better than a slow, prolonged demise. If Alzheimer’s or dementia is in the cards for you, exercising your brain can help to delay the inevitable.
Find a Program That’s Right for You
As with the myriad of options for strength, conditioning and cardiovascular workouts, there is no shortage of programs that claim to exercise your brain to help improve cognitive function. The key is not only finding one that works, but also one that works best for you to meet your specific goals. Here’s how.
- Determine your priorities. Do you need help with short-term memory, learning a new skill, sharpening your focus, improving your decision-making skills, or warding off Alzheimer’s, which runs in your family? Realize that these priorities may change with age and circumstance, which may require you to make changes in your regimen over time.
- Understand that eating right, getting enough sleep and managing stress also play critical roles. Just like eating fatty foods and sweets will “undo” any results you see from physical exercise, an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle will impair the benefits of any brain exercise program.
- Evaluate the options. Technology has revolutionized brain training, making high-tech tools to keep our brains sharp available right at our fingertips. A number of commercial tools are available to both self-monitor brain function and train your brain to perform better. But, in order to be effective, brain training systems must translate into real-world improvements. Look for systems that are interactive, engaging, progress with your skills and designed to meet your goals and priorities.
- Just do it. In the same way that going to the gym a couple of times per month will not give you the results you want, undirected, irregular brain exercise will not yield noticeable results. A minimum regimen of 15 hours per targeted brain function performed over 8 weeks or less is necessary for real improvement.
Just like maintaining a healthy body takes effort and focus, the same is true with your brain—there is no “magic pill.” Instead, exercising your brain to help optimize brain health, maintain sharp mental function with age, and ward off cognitive decline later in life. Just like physical exercise, it’s never too late to start.
Alvaro Fernandez is the co-author of the new “The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age” (284 pages; April 2013). This user-friendly, how-to guide cuts through the clutter of media hype and confusing research, offering proven, practical tips and techniques that anyone can use to enhance and maintain cognitive, emotional and executive functions throughout life and even ward off cognitive decline.
Photo by Abby Billington