OUR BRAIN, similar to our muscles, requires oxygen, nutrients, and stimulation for optimal functioning. Just as our physical performance increases with different and challenging fitness routines, the brain also benefits from mental “cross training” to expand its problem-solving skills, memory, and creativity. The mind can become complacent after a while, doing the same activities day in and day out. Not presenting unique stimuli can cause it to wither, much like a flower going without water for long durations. The more we exercise the brain in unique and unusual ways, the more we flourish by enjoying its increased capabilities.
If I asked you to solve a crossword puzzle today, your brain would be stretched to find the answers. However, if I gave you the same puzzle tomorrow and the next day, the strain of finding solutions would be less and less taxing because your brain would be used to the questions and know most of the answers from repetition and practice. If you continued to lift light weights when you worked your arm muscles, you’d eventually stop seeing progress. Similarly, challenging your brain by solving problems, thinking “outside the box,” and tackling brain puzzles, helps it “flex” and stay cognitively fit.
Try the following suggestions to improve mental abilities and challenge the brain:
- Use your non-dominant hand, leg, or appendage everyday in a safe way. Write your name, push a button, and eat with the opposite hand (but don’t try to drive a car or pick up hot liquids with the non-dominant hand).
- Read materials that may be more difficult and mentally demanding than your usual selections. If you read the sports section frequently, change it up and try the cooking feature first. If business news gets ignored, stimulate your brain by reading it anyway.
- Expanding your vocabulary is one of the best ways to challenge the brain. Try to learn a few new words every day, as well as their meanings, and use them daily in conversations.
- Challenge the brain with puzzles and games. Invest time in board games, online or printed puzzles, or television trivia shows. When watching a trivia show, try to figure out the answers before the contestants.
- Attempt to learn a foreign language. Even looking up a few new words and using them throughout the day is beneficial.
- Use scents to engage the brain. Memories from decades prior can be evoked simply by recognizing certain smells.
- Make up fun exercises such as reciting the months of the year in alphabetical order; counting by twos (2, 4, 6, 8) and then counting backward (8, 6, 4, 2); later changing the factor number to five (5, 10, 15), and then counting down backwards with the same factor number (15, 10, 5).
- Keep a pen and paper handy while watching television. When the commercials begin, try to make a list from memory of the last scenes you viewed before the commercial. Jot down details such as colors of furnishing; what the actors were wearing; and any flowers, paintings, and rugs in the scene.
- An hour before going to bed, write down a list of all the significant happenings of the day: 9 A.M.: read a great article on brain health, 10 A.M.: worked on project, 11 A.M.: conference call, 12 P.M.: ate a nutritious vegetable salad, and so on.
- Challenge the brain by seeking to incorporate one new fruit or vegetable into the day. If you haven’t eaten a grapefruit in years, buy one today. Explore new and unusual produce such as star fruit or lychee—look at the produce section of the store with new eyes.
MIND for Brain Health
I came up with an easy acronym you can use to remember how to incorporate good brain health habits into your daily life: MIND.
— Movement: A healthy brain requires good circulation; it must have oxygen, and a stronger heart can pump more oxygenated blood throughout the body. The arteries should be clear and unclogged, with good diameters, allowing for sufficient blood flow. Moving the body frequently during the day, even for short periods of time, helps to keep oxygen supplied to the brain. If you’re feeling stuck on a mental problem while sitting at work, simply standing up and walking around for a few minutes should get the circulation moving and will help you think better. Many people find that taking a short stroll and stretching helps the brain find new solutions to challenges.
— Imagination: Provide the brain with interesting ideas, thoughts, and intellectual data to stimulate increased cognitive function. Creatively engage your mind in solving various problems and seek solutions with new and imaginative possibilities. Continue this stimulation daily with unique, unusual, and challenging games, concepts, and learning. Expand your imagination by thinking “outside the box.”
— Nutrition: Excellent nutrition, along with proper hydration, is crucial for brain nourishment and protection. When the diet is high in fat, it causes slow, sludgy movement of oxygen. Focus on including fresh, whole, plant foods brimming with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Remember to consume brain-building foods and spices daily.
— Delight: Seek to be delighted and find enjoyment in the day. Happiness and laughter reduces blood pressure and releases endorphins, bathing our brain in feel-good chemicals. Find ways to delight the people around you with kind gestures and words. Being joyous is vital because the brain runs best on happiness. Strive to delight the mind with fun, compassion, and love.
John Pierre is a nutrition and fitness consultant who has devoted more than a quarter century to improving the lives of others through his expertise in the areas of geriatrics, nutrition, fitness, women’s empowerment, green living, and cognitive strength and improvement