Learning new things is one of the best ways to improve brain health.
The old adage “Use it or lose it” applies not only to our physical health but also to our cognitive health. We know that regular physical exercise is important, especially as we get older and want to reduce our risk of developing diseases and other health issues associated with aging. For instance, strength exercises can help build muscle and reduce the risk of osteoporosis ; balance exercises can help prevent falls; and flexibility and stretching exercises can help maintain range of motion to stay limber, according to the National Institute on Aging .
Similarly, your brain's cognitive reserve — its ability to withstand neurological damage due to aging and other factors without showing signs of slowing or memory loss — can also benefit from exercise, both physical and cognitive. Just as weight workouts add lean muscle to your body and help you retain more muscle in your later years , researchers now believe that following a brain-healthy lifestyle and performing regular, targeted brain exercises can increase your brain’s cognitive reserve.
A Whole-Body Approach to a Healthy Brain
So what types of exercises benefit your brain? Research shows that when it comes to keeping your mind sharp, exercising your body as well as your mind and sticking to healthy habits is the ideal formula.
A study published in July 2019 in The Journal of the American Medical Association followed 196,383 participants age 60 and older who did not have cognitive impairment or dementia when they joined the study and tracked data for eight years on factors such as current smoking status, regular physical activity, healthy diet, and moderate alcohol consumption. They found that a healthy lifestyle was associated with a lower dementia risk among participants, regardless of genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
Another study on the connection between lifestyle and dementia risk published in December 2013 in PLoS One , found that people who participate in multiple healthy behaviors significantly reduce their risk for dementia. For 30 years, the study tracked five healthy lifestyle behaviors — nonsmoking , optimal body mass index ( BMI ), high fruit and vegetable intake, regular physical activity, and low to moderate alcohol consumption — in 2,235 men and found that those who followed four or all five of the behaviors were about 60 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment or dementia.
“Approaches to brain health include a well-balanced diet low in fat, low in cholesterol, and high in antioxidants,” says Robert Bender, MD , section chief of the Geriatric and Memory Center at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa.
In addition to good nutrition, regular exercise can promote vascular health to help protect brain tissue. Avoiding ruts and boredom is also critical. “The brain wants to learn new things,” says Dr. Bender, noting that some researchers believe that people are more vulnerable to dementia when they pay less attention to the things around them. “When the brain is passive, it has a tendency to atrophy,” he adds, so sedentary and relatively passive activities, such as sitting in front of a TV for hours a day, can be detrimental to brain health over time.
Physical exercise has been shown to be particularly beneficial for the brain. In a study of 36 healthy young adults published in September 2018 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , researchers found that a single 10-minute period of low-intensity pedaling on a stationary bike was associated with increased activity in the brain’s hippocampus, which is known for its involvement in creating new memories and remembering facts and events.
And a study published in July 2019 in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society found that a single moderate workout session immediately before a cognitive task resulted in greater brain activation. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain activity of 26 healthy adults ages 55 to 85 on two separate days. On one day, they had participants rest for 30 minutes before identifying famous and non-famous names; on a separate day, they had participants pedal a stationary bike for 30 minutes before doing the same activity. The result: There was significantly greater brain activation after exercise, leading researchers to conclude that exercise can immediately change the way our brains function and adding to the evidence that physical activity can strengthen brain function and memory.
10 Brain Exercises to Boost Memory and Cognitive Function
In addition to following healthy lifestyle habits, such as eating a well-balanced diet and exercising regularly, you can also keep your mind and memory sharp with exercises to train your brain. And you don’t have to break the bank to do so. While there are scores of computer games and apps that promise to enhance cognitive function, there isn’t any definitive research that shows these products have significant neurological benefits for older adults. In a review published in 2014 in the journal PLoS Medicine , Australian researchers looked at 52 studies on computerized cognitive training (CCT) and found that the games are not particularly effective in improving brain performance. But a study published in March 2020 in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences of found that CCT may have some cognitive benefits, especially if combined with physical exercise.
Experts recommend sticking to brain training that involves real-world activities instead. Exercises to strengthen brain function should offer novelty and challenge. “Almost any silly suggestion can work,” says David Eagleman, PhD , a neuroscientist and adjunct professor of psychology and public mental health and population sciences at the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford University in California. “Drive home via a different route. Brush your teeth with your opposite hand. The brain works through associations , [which is why it’s easier to memorize lyrics than it is to try to remember the same words without music], so the more senses you involve, the better.”
Your morning newspaper is a great place to start. “Simple games like Sudoku and word games are good, as well as comic strips where you find things that are different from one picture to the next,” says John E. Morley, MD , a professor of medicine in the division of geriatric medicine at St. Louis University in Missouri and coauthor of The Science of Staying Young. In addition to word games, Dr. Morley recommends the following exercises to sharpen your mental skills.
Test your recall. Make a list — grocery items, things to do, or anything else that comes to mind — and memorize it. An hour or so later, see how many items you can recall. Make the list as challenging as possible for the greatest mental stimulation.
Let the music play. Learn to play a musical instrument or join a choir. Studies show that learning something new and complex over a longer period of time is ideal for the aging mind.
Do math in your head. Figure out problems without the aid of a pencil, paper, or computer. You can make this more difficult — and athletic — by walking at the same time.
Take a cooking class. Learn how to cook a new cuisine. Cooking uses a number of senses — smell, touch, sight, and taste — which involve different parts of the brain.
Learn a foreign language. The listening and hearing involved stimulates the brain. What’s more, a rich vocabulary has been linked to a reduced risk for cognitive decline, according to a Spanish study published in October 2014 in the journal Annals of Psychology .
Create word pictures. Visualize the spelling of a word in your head, and then try to think of other words that begin (or end) with the same two letters.
Draw a map from memory. After returning home from visiting a new place, try to draw a map of the area. Repeat this exercise each time you go somewhere new.
Challenge your taste buds. When eating, try to identify individual ingredients in your meal, including subtle herbs and spices.
Refine your hand-eye coordination. Take up a new hobby that involves fine motor skills, such as knitting, drawing, painting, or assembling a puzzle.
Learn a new sport. Start doing an athletic exercise that requires both mind and body , such as yoga, golf, or tennis.
Soon people will realize they can take steps to keep their brains healthy, just as they know they can prevent heart disease by taking certain actions, says Bender. “In the coming decade, I predict brain wellness to be right up there with heart health, now that there’s proof that living a brain-healthy lifestyle works!”
Sign up for our Healthy Living Newsletter!
Enter your email
The Latest in Longevity