Your Brain Is Like a Muscle — It Needs to Exercise in Order To Stay Fit! Here's How To Keep It Sharp
Your brain is a wondrous resource. Every day, it executes an extraordinary range of activities that seem simple only because you complete them so effortlessly. In reality, a brain workout is in order every once in a while to keep our minds sharp. Consider the intense coordination of physical and mental processes required just to drive to the nearest market. You first need to plan your destination, locate your keys, and walk to the car. Then you need to unlock the car, get in, remember how to start the engine, guide yourself out of a parking place or driveway, and simultaneously operate the steering wheel, gas pedal, and brakes while keeping track of landmarks that point the way to your destination. If it’s snowing, you may need to clean off the car and clear a path, turn on the windshield wipers and defroster, and navigate the conditions as you drive.
Once you arrive at the market, you’ll need to locate a place to park, get out, and find your way inside, then remember your entire shopping list and gather the ingredients for any meals you plan to prepare, along with anything else you may need to buy, even while making your way past all the distractions — the enticing displays, background music, signs, and other shoppers — that are placed in your path.
You will then need to repeat the process in reverse, first making your way back to your car and physically placing any grocery bags inside, then safely dropping off your shopping cart and making your way back home through the weather and traffic, parking and carrying the groceries back inside, and then finally focusing on cooking your meal. If you are recreating a favorite family recipe, you may remember your relationship with your grandmother and how she taught you to prepare it, how the entire dish should taste and smell so you know that it’s right, and then how you feel about serving the same meal to your family.
The Work You Don't See
As in everything else you do in your life, you probably never think about the diverse sets of skills and activities needed to pull off the entire process, from your initial planning and strategic thinking, to navigating the local conditions, to coordinating all of your motor activities and thoughts, to reminiscing about your relationship with your grandmother, to tasting and smelling the recipe, and then relating to each of the individuals in your family when dinner is served. Every task you perform requires a rich neural network that accesses multiple regions of your brain, integrating distinctive processes such as sensory recognition, knowledge and memory retrieval, motor skills, emotional processing, and maintaining your balance and focus in the immediate world. Every time you utilize each complex network, you reinforce the neural connections that make it all possible.
You would never make it through life if your brain were just a one-trick pony, relying only on intellectual skills like memory and reasoning. Instead, it takes advantage of a symphony of coordinated networks that all need to be kept cued up, fresh, and ready to fire when you need them. Brain power is a use it or lose it situation for all of the abilities involved. In order to keep your brain strong and supercharged, you need to actively call on its full capabilities as you go about your daily life.
Putting It To the Test
To help you assess how well you are managing this process, Eileen Donahue Robinson, PhD, a personality psychologist and adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University, and Keith Harary, PhD, Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Psychology, prepared a quiz that explores the many different ways you utilize your brain on a regular basis. They are co-authors of Who Do You Think You Are, a book on personality self-assessment. Consider the quiz as a kind of lifestyle checkup that will help you determine which neural networks you tend to rely upon and utilize most frequently, and which ones might benefit from more regular workouts.
Take a few moments to think back over the last seven days and recall, as clearly as possible, what kinds of activities you engaged in each day. Then compare your activities to the descriptions on the right-hand side of the chart and calculate the number of days, out of the past week, in which you engaged in any activity matching each description for at least 20 minutes at a time on that particular day.
Now it’s time to take the quiz. For the best results, complete the questions before reading on.
Understanding Your Results
Each colored section of the chart identifies an important area of functioning, such as intellectual interests, social relationships, leisure activities, and physical wellness. Each individual area involves complex networks that access multiple areas of your brain. Every one of the colored categories maximizes a particular type of skill: learning new things, communicating and empathizing with others, working toward goals, regulating positive emotions to offset daily stressors, and coordinating the movements of your body through time and space.
Look over your results to identify which colored categories, and their associated skills, you engage in consistently on most days of the week. These may be your areas of particular strength. Then identify any areas that you might ignore or neglect on many days. Research suggests it might be beneficial to activate these skills and their associated neural networks on a more frequent or regular basis. If you would like to create a greater sense of balance in your activities, we can suggest two approaches:
One option is to isolate the categories and networks you tend to exercise less frequently, identify the activities you are doing that use them, and try to perform those activities more often.
The second strategy requires more creativity, ingenuity, and imagination — so just figuring out how to do this earns you points in multiple categories! To begin, identify the activities you already do frequently on a day-to-day basis. Then find ways to “supercharge” those activities by making them richer, more varied, or more complex.
Rejuvenate Your Brain
Spice up your activities by adding new components that lead you to access several colored categories simultaneously. Try doing your favorite things in a new location, enjoying them with new people, or adding new sensations or motor sequences to the mix. For example, if you walk through your neighborhood every day, you might invite a neighbor to join you, so that you are walking, conversing, forming a new relationship, and learning about new topics all at the same time. If you work out on a stationary bike, try listening to audio books or podcasts, or coordinating your pace to the beat of a new style and language of music. Doing familiar things in new ways creates new connections in your brain, a process called neuroplasticity, which helps keep your brain youthful, healthy, and efficient.
When it comes to rejuvenating your spirit and brain, you might also consider meditation. Many people pursue meditation to create a private internal universe in a place between waking and sleep. Those who meditate often report that the process helps them gain perspective along with a deeper feeling of well-being and connection. Research shows that the calming and restorative benefits of meditation support a more active and resilient brain. Meditating can help strengthen your neural connections, facilitating a better ability to concentrate, along with improved self-awareness and self-esteem, and lowered levels of stress and anxiety, all of which help to maintain a healthy level of brain functioning as you age.
The Power of Laughter
Laughter has also been shown to have measurable benefits for your body and brain, including building resiliency, increasing creative problem-solving, and boosting your overall satisfaction with life. Little wonder, since laughter exercises your upper body, encourages deep breathing, and releases pleasurable chemicals in your brain, and humor often relies on seeing the world in new and unusual ways. Further research has found that laughter shared with others, which engages your social and communication skills, is even better than laughing alone for benefitting your brain. Similarly, solving a problem with a team often generates more brain gain than doing it alone.
Benefits of Exercise
Exercise has been found to literally fuel your brain, increasing its uptake of glucose, and regulating the neurotransmitters it needs to function. Running through your neighborhood, absorbing sights and sounds, and navigating your way, additionally improves visual perception and your ability to integrate information. Listening to music can increase mental alertness, boost your memory, improve your sleep, and reduce pain, anxiety, and blood pressure. Singing, playing an instrument, and especially dancing have been shown to be even more beneficial than passively listening to music, likely because they activate additional neural networks.
Give Your Brain a Workout and Learn a New Language
Learning a foreign language is especially effective at forming new neural connections because you are referencing existing semantic networks while simultaneously developing new ways to communicate. MRI studies show that learning a foreign language provides an effective brain workout that can cause brain regions associated with memory and spatial navigation — including the cerebral cortex and hippocampus — along with the gray matter that connects different parts of the brain, to grow.
Yoga For Your Body and Mind
Tremendous neural benefits have also been found for yoga, including lowered levels of anxiety and improved cognitive performance, most likely because it combines movement, flexibility, balance, focus, and relaxation and — when practiced as part of a class — social connections as well. Recent research suggests that practicing yoga can help improve focusing and information processing and protect the brain from age-related decline.
While focusing on expanding your neural repertoire, keep in mind that healthy sleep also plays a critical restorative role. While you sleep, your brain works to reinforce useful new connections and — just as significantly — to prune away connections you no longer need. By making a coordinated effort to call upon all the multifaceted layers and dimensions of your brain on a continuing basis, you can not only keep your brain strong, but can also maintain more immediate access to a wide range of human capabilities. In the process, you can not only supercharge your brain; you can also improve your quality of life.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Supercharge Your Brain, in 2022.