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Ronald R. Fieve, M.D, PC

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Exercising Your Brain

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The brain is an incredibly complex organ, and we still do not fully understand all of its inner workings. Though we all accept the need to exercise our bodies and maintain physical health, it is less common for people to understand the equal need to exercise our brains. Exercising our brains is vital, as brains behave in a similar fashion to a muscle. “Working out” your brain can help it physically grow, and strengthen the neural pathways in the brain; conversely, brains can also atrophy just like muscles with disuse and age, making it more difficult to perform mental tasks.

Research has suggested that mental activity is beneficial for overall brain health, increase the brain’s cognitive research for improved performance, and can even guard against degenerative diseases such as dementia. Many studies have been done to prove the link between mental exercise and its brain-boosting benefits. Rats have very similar brains to humans, and rats living in enriched environments have been proven to have many benefits over rats living in a plain cage. Not only do they grow more new brain cells and form stronger neural connections, but they also have better memory, are better at learning, and even recover from strokes more quickly and fully.

There are many ways to live a brain-healthy lifestyle. Like the body, the brain needs good physical health to stay strong and active. In this study, people who participated in 5 healthy lifestyle behaviors were 60% less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia over 30 years than those who did not. The healthy behaviors were: non-smoking, optimal BMI, high fruit and vegetable intake, regular physical activity, and low to moderate alcohol intake.

Beyond just lifestyle changes, there are also many mental exercises that can be done to improve brain health. Though there are many apps and games that claim to improve brain health, a recent review of studies on computerized cognitive training found that these types of software have not been proven to be especially effective. Luckily, there are many real-world activities that can strengthen brain function. Anything that offers novelty or forces the brain to make new associations rather than just following the same routine can be beneficial to brain health, such as the following:

1)     Shake up your routine! Try taking a different route in your daily commute, or try doing simple tasks with your non-dominant hand, such as brushing your teeth.

2)     Pick up a new hobby, especially one that involves fine-motor skills. Drawing, puzzles, knitting, and even juggling are great suggestions.

3)     Learn a new sport, especially one that utilizes both mind and body. Basketball and soccer are great for more active types, while yoga or golf can accommodate many more levels of physical ability.

4)     Learn a new language, or at least challenge yourself to learn a new word daily. While learning a new language can be difficult, it stimulates many different areas of the brain, and a rich vocabulary has even been linked to reduced risk for mental decline.

Continue to find ways to challenge yourself mentally every day. Doing math problems in your head, such as calculating the tip on a restaurant bill yourself, or memorizing your grocery list can all help exercise your brain.

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