Science is uncovering new secrets about a three-pound CPU that has existed since the dawn of man – the brain.
This CPU sitting on top of your shoulders has amazing resilience to changing conditions–what neuroscientists call “plasticity.” It will provide optimal levels of cognition and memory as long as you maintain it, but even though the idea of hitting the gym for physical fitness is well-accepted, few people understand how important hitting the mental gym is for our brains.
Dumbell Curls for Your Brain
Scientists at Brown University found that when rats were trained to accomplish a new motor skill, their brains changed over the course of the training. The synapses of the brain cells that were used actually grew. Just like doing curls increases the size of your biceps, doing mental exercises repairs damaged pathways and creates new ones, building memory and keeping your brain healthy.
Brain workouts, fortunately, don’t need to be complicated. In fact, creating brain fitness can be as simple as reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, hanging out talking to friends, going to meetings, learning how to play a musical instrument, playing video games, or spending the evening dancing.
Sometimes this list of potential activities seems too simple, especially when cognitive decline is one of the greatest threats we face on our path to longevity. How can something as everyday as reading a book or enjoying a hobby do so much good for your brain?
Use It or Lose It
The sedentary lifestyle that threatens our physical health and leads to obesity shares many of the same Habits of Disease with the behaviors that threaten our brain health. When we are trapped in a cycle of sleeping too little, working long stressful hours, making boring daily commutes, and rewarding ourselves with Netflix binges and tubs of icecream, we don’t just gain weight. Our brains suffer too.
The good news: Anytime you perform an activity that’s different from your usual routine, you create new neural pathways. If right now you switched to scrolling through this article with your non-dominant hand, you might feel silly and clumsy at first, but even this small challenge puts your brain in motion as it learns and adapts to this new way of doing things.
The off-hand hack is an easy way to use daily activities (like household chores) to build new neural pathways and bolster brain health, but don’t stop there!
Look for hobbies and entertainment that continually challenge your brain but are also fun and enjoyable so that it’s easier to stick with them. There is nothing wrong with enjoying video games as a hobby as long as you still live an active, healthy lifestyle, but don’t forget that you can also find hobbies that give your brain and body a workout. You could learn to ballroom dance, or to do a martial art, or to birdwatch while you hike.
The possibilities are more varied and diverse than you might think, so get creative!
The Halo Effect of Habits of Health
When we exercise our bodies, the bulk of the effort can feel like it happens in the gym during your workout, but that’s not the case. When we eat the right foods, when we get enough sleep, when we are active in our daily lives, we get far better results from the work we do in the gym itself.
Brain health isn’t so different.
So, while you’re exercising your brain, don’t forget that your brain will also benefit from your other Habits of Health. Get good sleep. Eat healthy foods. Exercise your body. Learn to address and resolve sources of stress. All of these are boosts for your brain as well!