Light Up Your Brain

Michele Deppe

10 Activities That Power Up Your Brain and Keep You Sharp

Regularly putting your brain through its mental paces is a brilliant habit, no matter your age. Little things that you do on the daily can positively impact your brain health and, thus, influence your entire quality of life.

Neuropsychologist Katherine Reiter, PhD, from Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Brain Health, says it’s essential to keep your mind active. “Research shows that engaging in cognitively stimulating activities is associated with less cognitive decline and larger brain volumes in older adults,” says Reiter.

But what kind of activities power up your brain? Here are some brain-benefitting exercises based on the latest research and suggestions from top experts:

1. Be a hometown cartographer

Where’s your favorite grocery store? And the nearest school?

In the 1940s, psychologist Edward Tolman observed that his lab rodents found their way around by memory, as we often do. Practicing a little cartography and drawing a map of an area you’ve recorded in your mind is a fun and beneficial task for your brain. (Relying on Google Maps all the time . . . not so much.)

Changing up your usual routes and taking a different way to your destination can be good for you too. The Journal of Neuroscience published a study showing how experienced cab drivers in London, England, grew their hippocampus (located in the brain’s memory center) to navigate the massive city by memory.

2. Have a puzzle party

Jigsaw or crossword puzzles challenge the brain to concentrate, improve short-term memory, and improve thinking, according to research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. A study published in Neuron indicates that your brain leaves its “usual superhighways” and ventures out onto new pathways to solve a sticky sudoku problem. And Baylor College of Medicine’s blog reports that working puzzles reduces stress. Ahh. . . .

3. Drink from the fountain of youth

A good workout gets your heart pumping and strengthens your muscles. That’s usually how we think about exercise: It’s for your body.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage, writes that exercise also provides a feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine. In one trial, adults in a drug-abuse treatment program participated in an hour of walking, jogging, and strength training three times a week. Eight weeks later, their brains showed an increase in dopamine receptor availability: They were literally making their brains more sensitive to joy by exercising! McGonigal writes that, as we age, adults lose up to 13 percent of their dopamine receptors each decade. Physical activity prevents this, and adults who exercise can avoid the loss of everyday enjoyment and continue to experience life’s pleasures like younger people.

4. Keep on reaching higher

Like many things in life, the physical exercises with the most benefit for the brain are the activities that require us to change and reach new goals.

 “The key is to improve our fitness level, regardless of our starting point,” says Reiter. 

For example, she says that relatively inactive people may begin stretching and walking. Over time, they can increase the amount of walking or the intensity, perhaps by adding light hand weights.

She points to research from the University of Maryland that shows how the brain responds to improved fitness levels. In the study, older adults diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment began a walking program. “After 12 weeks of walking, the seniors had increased cortical thickness in areas of the brain that are typically known to atrophy or show shrinkage over time,” Reiter says. “Other findings from this group of studies show better brain connectivity, increased cerebral blood flow, and better performance on some cognitive tests.”

Reiter says the same advice stands for more active individuals: increase the exercise time or intensity.

For that extra brain boost, it may be helpful to incorporate different types of exercises. In a recent Harvard newsletter, John N. Morris, PhD, suggests that swimming is a great workout for the brain because it involves “constant thinking, processing, and learning” as you are mindful of your breathing, strokes, and kicks, all of which exercises the brain in different ways.

5. Get crafty

Knitting, crocheting, and crafting aren’t just for grannies. These days, young women, men, and kids knit and crochet. And access to learning new crafts has never been easier.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic interviewed over 1,300 older people and found that crafters were at lower risk for brain problems and memory loss.

6. Be studious

Digging into research or learning about a new topic keeps up your brain’s plasticity (the ability to learn and grow), say experts at Harvard. MRI scans show that mastering a new language increases your gray matter and white matter and forges new connections in memory that help train your brain to focus, communicate more effectively, and be more creative.

7. Frame this

One study found that learning photography and quilting enhanced participants’ visual-spatial abilities and sharpened their memory function.

8. Hit the right note

The fascinating, science-based folks at say that playing an instrument is like getting a total body workout. Unlike other brain-training activities, experts say that playing an instrument recruits almost every region of the brain, including vision, sound, movement, and memory.

9. Add variety to your life

Whatever activities or hobbies you like, changing things up now and then is critical.

“It’s important to vary the time spent and complexity of different activities,” Reiter says. For example, if you enjoy art, continue doing art, but try a different method or genre.

Research gathered over two decades shows that adding new brain-engaging activities protects and empowers your brain. Even if you try something new and aren’t especially good at it, your brain still loves doing something different.

10. Stay social

Having a busy social life helps maintain brain health. Seek out book clubs, try a new class, or pick up a sport.

Perhaps you tend to be more introverted? “Social activities can mean different things to different people,” Reiter says. Although joining a club is great, it doesn’t have to involve large groups in a public place. Reiter says talking with family on the phone or reconnecting with old friends are great options.

Michele Deppe is a freelance writer based in South Carolina.

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