We exercise to keep our bodies feeling young and healthy, right? But what about our brains? According to cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf, “The brain is the only organ in the body that gets better with age, but there is a caveat: It needs to be used properly!” Though our minds are always active—even when we’re asleep—she emphasizes that the quality of this activity is where our focus should be if we want to try keep our brains young and healthy. And luckily, keeping our brains sharp doesn't require kooky techniques and treatments. Here, five activities Dr. Leaf recommends for keeping your brain young.
1. Read Fiction
Reading in general is an incredible way to expand our minds and think more creatively. But we can reap even more incredible benefits if we pay attention to how we’re reading. Dr. Leaf explains, “You’ll need to dive in with enthusiasm, consume and enjoy the words.” Rather than halfheartedly reading a couple of pages before you go to bed because you heard it’s good for you, “Embrace the escape—let your mind wonder into another world. This generates excellent blood flow in the brain and activates a balance of frequencies across the brain that can stimulate healthy neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage or dysfunction.” As Dr. Leaf puts it, “One of the main keys in keeping your brain young is driving this neuroplasticity in a healthy direction.”
2. Do Complex Puzzles with Others
"A good puzzle stimulates gamma activity in the brain," Dr. Leaf notes, "which is excellent for creativity and keeping the brain young." And it turns out it's not just puzzles that can stimulate brain activity. Last fall, psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist Daniel Amen told CNBC Make It that he recommends ping pong (yes, ping pong). Calling it one of the “world’s best brain games,” Dr. Amen says ping pong can help your mind stay sharp, citing a recent small study published in the American Academy of Neurology that found that people with Parkinson’s who played ping pong once a week for six months showed “improvement in their Parkinson’s symptoms.” The study's author, doctor Ken-ichi Inoue of Fukuoka University in Fukuoka, Japan, added that ping pong has been shown “in the general population to improve hand-eye coordination, sharpen reflexes and stimulate the brain.”
3. Walk and Daydream
Every. Single. Day. Dr. Leaf tells us that allowing your mind and body to wander every day will engage the 200 different sections of the brain in a creative and stimulating way that can help keep the brain young. "Walk and immerse yourself in a conversation with your own mind, noticing all the details of everything around you," she suggests. There's no need for a path or specific train of thought, the point is to let your mind (and body) wander.
4. Change the Way You Listen to Music
Yep, something as simple as listening to music can improve your brain. Dr. Leaf notes that really tuning into and listening to music—letting it carry you away—can have a regenerating effect on the overall energy flow and networks in the brain.
5. Practice Observing Yourself and Your Impact on Others
"This will engage the different frequencies of the brain, particularly the alpha frequency," Dr. Leaf tells us. "This can help you identify toxic patterns you need to detox, which can really impact brain age and health." So while there's a time for zoning out—like while on a walk or during a daydream—it's also important to be aware of yourself and your impact on others to promoting healthy aging.