One of the frequent complaints I get from my over 40 patients is that their memory and word-finding capabilities just don’t seem as sharp anymore. It may take them a little longer to come up with the correct word and they forget where they put things. They worry it might be a sign of Alzheimer disease, but I reassure them most likely it’s from lack of exercise – brain exercise!
That’s right – exercise for your brain! My patient’s response is usually always to look at me a little funny and say things like, how in the world do I do that? Well, that’s what I’d like to share with you here, how to keep your brain as fit as your body, retain/access more memory and find the appropriate words when you need to.
How To Exercise Your Brain
As I tell my patients, exercise is not only beneficial, it is crucial, for your entire body to stay healthy and flexible. The same concept applies to your brain – something scientists call neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to stay flexible and constantly reshaping itself, re-learning and adapting to new challenges. There are 5 core brain areas that need frequent and consistent stimulation to stay vibrant and functioning well. They are:
Memory: Remembering names, where you put your keys, figure calculation.
Problem solving: Choosing multiple options quickly, make quick/accurate assessments.
Attention: Driving safely and quickly. Avoid distractions. Focusing on important tasks.
Speed: How fast you react, make a decision, adapt to new environment.
Flexibility: Multitasking, think in new, unconventional ways.
Like my patients, your initial thought might be, how do I exercise these specific brain areas? This is where the fun part comes in. Doing things that stimulate and exercise your brain are actually fun activities you can do alone or with friends or family. These include the following:
Play video/Wii games with your kids/grandkids: These games involve using specific capacities of your brain that stimulate memory, processing speed, and intelligence. They engage players in cognitive exercises that require you to make decisions quickly, such as trying to navigate a race car on a track, or trying to keep yourself up on skis while jumping waves and ramps.
Learn/Study Something: You’re never too old to learn something new. In fact, it’s one of the best things you can do to stimulate your brain and keep it from aging poorly. Learning an entirely different subject, such as a foreign language, world history, math, or even just how to change the oil in your car, stimulates the growth of new cognitive areas of your brain. You can do this through self-study or take a class at a local school.
Socialize More: Studies show that people who get out in their community around other people, attending lectures, plays, concerts (especially classical music), art shows, anywhere they can meet new people and engage in new conversation, exchange new ideas, not only makes you happier but it also sparks cognitive brain activity.
Do Crossword Puzzles: A senior neighbor well into his 90s religiously does the crossword puzzle in the paper every day. I believe it’s one of the things that help his memory and cognition stay sharp as well as his ability to process information. In addition, brain researchers have found that doing word puzzles while watching TV can help your brain do multi-tasking.
Play Games: Games like Scrabble, Soduku, chess, checkers, Brain Age (Nintendo DS) are not only fun to play, they engage parts of your brain involved in problem solving, word finding, and making quick decisions as they arise.
Memorize Things: Start with little things like your grocery list, household to-do list, and work up to things like a short poem, then a longer one. Exercising your short-term recall memory can help you remember names of people you just met or where you put objects.
Stop Using Your Calculator: Like many of my patients, you may carry a pocket calculator with you to figure your grocery bills and everything else. Rekindling your relationship with your simple math skills can help stimulate the remote memory of skills you likely learned as a child. This also helps predominantly right-brain (artists, dancers, politicians) stimulate the left side of their brain.
Breathe Fresh Air: Taking several deep inhalations of fresh air every morning at an open window can really wake up your brain and stimulate blood flow to it. It will make you feel energized and clear-headed.
Get Into The Arts: Watching movies, painting, drawing help exercise the right side of your brain that deals with spatial, visual and depth perception skills that help you navigate in your physical world. This is particularly good if you are predominantly left-brain (analytical, reality-based).
Move Your Body: Exercise for your body also helps your brain. But don’t get in a rut. The more you change up your routines the better your brain likes it and the more it is stimulated. Interval training and muscle confusion, using different muscles all the time, really challenges your brain to keep in synch with you.
Change Your Routine: Like many of my patients, you’re likely in a rut of your everyday activities. Your brain, as well as your mood and your physical health, would really get a big boost if you changed at least one thing in your routine, once a week. It can help keep your brain flexible and able to adapt to new information.
As I advise my patients, staying physically and mentally fit are crucial in warding off “aging” as opposed to growing older gracefully. Most memory loss or loss of motor skills is not a function of aging, rather they can result from simple lack of use, much like your muscles get weak if you don’t exercise regularly. Be sure to make time for your physical, as well as mental, fitness into your daily life. Now that’s one routine you should keep for a lifetime!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Natural Health News
How To Exercise Your Brain, http://www.wikihow.com/Exercise-Your-Brain
Stay Mentally Active, http://www.alz.org/we_can_help_stay_mentally_active.asp