In the mainstream media, we see a lot of discussion about brain function
as it relates to traumatic injury or a chronic condition like Alzheimer’s
disease. In this way, the brain is seen as a passive organ or one that
some unforeseen event happens to. But would it surprise you to know that
the brain is a muscle that needs and can benefit greatly from focused
and consistent exercise? It’s true. And many of today’s elite
athletes are focusing on brain training to help them strengthen their
approach to how they compete.
But you needn’t be an athlete to reap the mental and physical rewards
of exercising the brain. Much like the muscles in our bodies, our mental
capacity is also subject to a type of “use it or lose it”
effect. But not every brain-boosting activity is created equal. Research
has found that the most effective brain exercises break up your regular
routine and challenge you enough to develop new pathways in the brain.
Today, there is a variety of brain training programs, smart phone apps
and other “gimmicks” that claim to strengthen the brain’s
performance. While some may be interesting, you don’t need to pay
a subscription fee to reap their benefits. Any worthwhile brain exercise
is going to have the following components:
- It involves something you haven’t learned before. This could be learning
a foreign language, a new sport or even just taking a different route
to work in the morning. The point is that it needs to be new and unfamiliar.
- It’s not easy. Challenging exercises, whether physical or mental
increase neural pathways because they demand focused effort.
- It develops a skill that can be built on. Find something that you can begin
at a simple level and increase as you master each phase of performance.
Various sports as well as other activities can offer this type of “building
block” performance challenge.
- It pays off. Our brains are wired to appreciate rewards. Choose activities
that are challenging but enjoyable.
While brain-focused activity is an important focus for performance enhancement,
so too is actual physical exercise. Physical exertion helps the brain
remain sharp – honing reaction times and ability to focus. Exercise
that involves focused hand-eye coordination is a great way to build brain
strength. The exercise itself doesn’t need to be elaborate. For
example, running and swimming both involve the need for dedicated hand-eye
coordination and as aerobic exercise, also give the brain a blood-pumping boost.
Lastly, no matter the amount of brain-building physical and mental exercise
you engage in, it won’t do any good if you aren’t getting
enough sleep. The brain’s most important time of the day is while
you are asleep. During sleep your brain rids itself of toxins, consolidates
memory and builds neural highways. Nearly all adults need 7-9 hours of
sleep each night.