The phrase “use it or lose it” applies to nothing quite as well as it applies to the human brain. Just like physical activity can fight off heart disease, exercising the gray matter between your ears can fight off neurological diseases like dementia.
In addition, numerous studies have shown that individuals whose brains are more mentally agile have less risk of developing Alzheimer’s. And just as physical agility is achieved through exercise, mental agility is achieved via cerebral stimulation.
Of course, you may be thinking: I’m young. I work hard, mentally and physically. I don’t need to worry about my cognitive functions.
Not true. The mind is different from the body in one major area: While you can keep your body fit by doing the same thing over and over again (e.g., going for a jog), repetition can actually make your brain go into sleep mode.
So while it may feel like your job is taxing on your brain, it may not be if you’re constantly focused on the same kinds of tasks every day. It’s easy to confuse mental fatigue with mental boredom. Both feel the same.
So let’s start working your brain. Here’s a variety of exercises that will give your brain a quick tune-up and keep it feeling as young as your body:
1. Switch hands
This exercise will strengthen existing neural connections and create new ones: Switch the hand you use to control the mouse for your computer.
Don’t worry about feeling uncomfortable or awkward. Your brain is learning a new skill.
Other neural strengthening exercises you should try include using your off hand to:
- brush your teeth
- use your phone, and
- operate the TV remote.
2. Change your routine
Establishing new routines will help improve your attention and strengthen your concentration.
One simply way to change your routine: Reorganize your desk. This will force your brain to wake up and pay attention to its surroundings again.
Other ideas include:
- taking a new route to work
- rearranging the furniture in your home or apartment
- reading a different magazine when you’re on the bus or in bed, or
- teaching yourself to cook a new meal and skipping the take-out.
Of course, nobody likes change. So you’ve got to fight the urge to keep things status quo.
3. Read, play, learn
Think of your brain as a muscle, and perform activities that flex it.
These activities can include reading, putting together puzzles, playing games, starting a new hobby, learning another language (which actually becomes much harder as you age, so do it now) or even performing home repairs.
A cognitive psychologist in the U.K. found that when elderly people played bingo regularly, it minimized memory loss and improved their hand-eye coordination.
Now no one’s suggesting you join your grandmother’s bingo group, but you get the idea.
4. Make connections
Try to learn new things and connect those things to what you already know.
Example: A builder may want to read a magazine about dogs in an attempt to learn about new home requirements of pet owners that he might’ve never considered otherwise.
By looking for connections between the things you know and the things don’t, you learn to think creatively. And the connections you make during this process improve your memory and recall ability.
5. Sing to solve
When you’re alone (or when you’re not, your call), try singing to solve problems you’re working on.
Reason: This taps into and exercises the right side of your brain.
Ever notice how it’s easier to rhyme words when you sing them rather than speak them? It’s because you’ve tapped into the pattern recognition power of the right side of the brain. This will make you a more effective problem-solver.
6. Learn new lyrics
Once you’re in the singing mood (and you’re done problem-solving), why not tune into a new radio station (or Pandora channel) and try to memorize and belt out some new lyrics?
By choosing to learn a song you don’t know, you boost the level of acetylcholine in your brain – a chemical that helps build your brain and improve memory.
7. Expand your dictionary
Language activities will improve your ability to recognize, remember and understand new words.
One easy activity that will improve your grammatical skills: Read a different section of the newspaper. If you only read the business section, jump over to the sports or entertainment page.
It’ll expose you to new words. And taking the time to understand those words in context will help build your language skills.
This article was contributed by Christian Schappel, veteran editor at Progressive Business Publications (PBP). Christian writes PBP’s HR Benefits Alert, providing HR executives with news, research and ideas to help them improve their organizations.