We don’t just lose muscle over time — our brains can atrophy, too. More specifically, your brain’s cognitive reserve — its ability to withstand neurological damage due to aging and other factors without showing visible signs of slowing or memory loss — diminishes through the years. That can make it more difficult to perform mental tasks. But just as weight workouts add lean muscle to your body and help you retain more muscle in your later years, researchers now believe that following a brain-healthy lifestyle and performing regular, targeted brain exercises can also increase your brain’s cognitive reserve.
Benefits of improving your brainpower
According to a 2015 study published in the journal Neurology, older adults who engage in regular physical exercise like jogging and cycling are less likely to be affected by age-related brain illnesses that can limit memory and mobility. And those people who perform regular, targeted brain exercises keep their brains sharp and healthy, which reduces cognitive decline and memory impairment.
When you exercise your brain, you will also improve your creative abilities, which will give you a competitive advantage in your job.
Moreover, brain exercises strengthen your ability to think on your feet and give witty responses, meaning you won’t be lost for words at critical moments in conversations.
Goodbye to awkward silences!
Simple exercises to sharpen the brain
While you can enroll in a number of online brain training programs, experts generally recommend sticking to brain training exercises that involve real-world activities.
According to David Eagleman, PhD, neuroscientist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, exercises to strengthen brain function should offer novelty and challenge:
“Almost any silly suggestion can work.”
Here’re 25 simple real-world exercises you can do starting today to sharpen your brain and improve memory.
1. Drive a new route home
As simple as this exercise may sound, taking a different route home stimulates the brain. You are forced to involve more senses to find your way around, which keeps your brain alert instead of mindlessly driving home or to work on familiar routes.
Avoiding ruts and boredom is critical to keeping your brain sharp, says Eagleman.
2. Repeat it out loud
In order to remember anything you have just read, heard or done, repeat it out loud.
For example, repeat out loud the name of someone new you’ve just met and you will nail the name down in your mind.
3. Listen while you read
A study conducted at the University of Puerto Rico found that out of 137 Spanish-speaking students quizzed about an English book they were given to read, those students who read the book while simultaneously listening to an English audio version outscored the group that only read on eight different quizzes about the book.
Listen to audio of something while simultaneously reading or watching it. You’ll engage more of your senses and help your mind remember more.
4. Play crossword puzzles
Simple crossword puzzles and other word games like scrabble, where you rearrange letters and make as many words as you can, stimulate the brain and improve memory.
5. Play chess
Don’t forget to play other brain-boosting, strategy games like chess and checkers. Logic-based numbers games like Sudoku can also keep your brain fit.
6. Learn a musical instrument
Start playing a musical instrument. Studies show that learning something new and complex over a longer period of time is beneficial for the aging mind.
7. Play a new sport
Start playing a new sport that utilizes both mind and body, such as tennis, golf, or even yoga. Athletic exercise like these will not only improve your physical fitness, but also your mental fitness.
8. Learn a foreign language
Enroll in a foreign language course online or at your local education center. It will help to sharpen and rejuvenate your brain.
9. Draw a map from memory
When you return home from visiting a new place, draw a map of the area from memory. Expand this brain exercise by drawing maps of your commute, neighborhood and other areas to enhance memory.
10. Cook a new cuisine
Take a cooking class. Learn how to cook new cuisines. Cooking stimulates different parts of the brain and different senses including smell, sight, and taste.
11. Do chores with eyes closed
Try washing the dishes, sorting laundry or taking a shower with your eyes closed. This will force your brain to use other neural pathways to get the task done.
Obviously, don’t do anything with your eyes closed that would endanger others or yourself.
12. Eat a meal using chopsticks
Chopsticks will force your brain to pay attention and give your brain a good workout, especially if you have never used them before to eat.
13. Switch hands when doing stuff
If you are right-handed, try using your left hand to do things like brushing your teeth and eating.
For example, if you are already good at using chopsticks to eat, use your non-dominant hand instead to challenge your fine-motor skills that are controlled by the nervous system consisting of the brain.
14. Connect with new people
Every time you connect with other people, you expose yourself to new ideas and other ways of thinking and doing things. This stimulates your mind and widens your world view and thinking process.
So, be open to traveling more and attending shows and events to meet and interact with new people. It’ll keep your mind in tip-top shape.
15. Savor different flavors in meals
Challenge your taste buds by deliberately savoring your meals. Try to identify the individual ingredients in food, including subtle spices and herbs for a tasteful burst of mental stimulation.
16. Do math in your head
Don’t always rush to use a pen and paper, or a calculator to figure out math problems. Try to do them in your head. Make things a little bit more interesting by working out math problems in your head while also walking.
17. Practice meditation
Training your mind to be quiet is not always easy, but it can be done through meditation.
Some of the benefits of practicing meditation include stress reduction, improved learning ability, increased focus and attention, enhanced memory and mood, and also reversal of brain atrophy.
18. Memorize phone numbers
By memorizing people’s names and phone numbers, you strengthen connections between your brain cells, which can make a big difference for your memory.
Divide 10-digit numbers into sections, such as 801 665 9378 to make it easier remember. It is arguably easier to remember 801 665 9378 than 8016659378.
19. Take up a craft hobby
Craft hobbies like knitting, drawing and painting are now getting more attention for their brain-boosting powers.
Take up any craft hobby of your choice to strengthen your fine-motor skills and boost your brainpower.
20. Tell stories
Telling stories stimulates the brain through recalling and recounting important details. It also helps you remember events and associate emotion with memories.
Storytelling is so good for memory it is used to improve the lives of people with in Alzheimer’s disease.
21. Create new acronyms
Come up with your very own clever acronyms whenever you need to memorize something in a hurry.
Creating original acronyms or mnemonic phrases, where you use the first letters of words within a phrase to form a name, can sharpen your brain and assist in remembering more.
22. Visualize what you want to remember
Let’s say you want to remember to buy an item you need from the supermarket. Picture the items on your shopping list balancing on parts of your body.
For example, imagine balancing an egg on your nose, a bottle of milk on your head or a package of cheese on your shoulder. It’s fan and you won’t forget that image.
23. Vary aspects of your surroundings
Vary things like the music in the background, time of day and whether you sit or stand when doing something to increase recall.
The theory is that the brain associates words (or whatever you are doing) to the context or environment around you. The more contextual cues you provide your brain, the more it has to draw upon when trying to remember specific things.
24. Space out your learning sessions
Cramming is not always the best way to learn or remember things. Instead, review the information you want to learn or remember (statistics, foreign vocabulary, historical dates, scientific definitions, and so on) periodically over time. By spacing out your study sessions throughout the day, you learn more.
Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that he could learn a list of nonsense words if he repeated them 68 times in one day and seven more times before being tested the next day.
25. Sleep on it
Get enough shut eye each night. The brain needs six to eight hours of sleep, or at least two cycles of deep sleep each night to complete the necessary chemical changes needed to integrate new skills and information into long-term memory.
Remember, your brain thrives on variety to keep those synapses firing. Exercising your brain with activities that are challenging, novel, and complex will help you to remember more and keep your brain fit.