Crossword puzzles alone won’t give your brain what it needs for optimal
health across the lifespan.
Today, an Internet search of "brain training" will yield results
that almost entirely include websites, apps, or subscriptions for stationary
activities such as crosswords, Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles, or the latest rage
– Wordle – an online and social media-based word game. While
these activities are touted for their brain-boosting potential, they (and
we) can miss a fundamental truth about brain health. Dynamic activities,
such as competitive sports or cardiovascular exercise, are essential for
optimal brain health across the lifespan. Moreover, there’s increasing
evidence demonstrating “dual tasking” (such as simultaneous
participation in physical and cognitive training activities), and progressively
increasing a cognitive load with distractions and the pressure of limited
time can be of significant additional benefit. Doing what is best for
our brains is crucial because not every touted brain-boosting activity
is created equal.
No matter how old you are or whether you're healthy or currently have
a neurologic condition, science has proven that your brain loves to learn. How
efficient the brain is at learning or adapting can significantly impact how we respond
to a change in our environment or an injury throughout a lifetime. This
concept is medically referred to as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is
the "brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural
connections throughout life." But here's the catch – for
the brain's neurons to form connections that are ultimately beneficial
to an individual, those neurons must have the correct type of stimulation.
There is no offense to online "brain game" apps, but no one needs
a subscription to train the brain for optimal health and performance.
I'm also less inclined to suggest most online and social media-based
gaming purportedly designed for "brain-training" purposes. I
say this because these modalities can get expensive and potentially addicting
in a way that might have adverse brain health effects, which eventually
reduce the overall benefit. Here's what I suggest: Identify a reputable
clinician who can assist with evaluating your individual performance and
recommend specific interventions. And if you’d prefer a less “clinical”
pursuit, approach brain training with the simple goal of consistently
learning something new that challenges you.
For some, learning a new thing might involve acquiring a foreign language
or playing a musical instrument. For others, either idea might seem daunting
or out of reach. No problem! For those who don't want to bite off
more than they can chew, taking a different route to work in the morning
or learning to make a new meal recipe is beneficial for brain health.
Plus, unlike the stationary activity of playing an online word game, these
activities also require the body to move. And as it turns out, moving
the body is crucial for optimal brain health.
The most recent science available indicates that aerobic exercise (think
walking, running, or cycling, for example) has an extremely significant
and positive effect on the brain's health. But I have another catch
– for the best brain health benefits – the aerobic exercise
being engaged in must be challenging. As I explained previously, learning
something new and challenging is a big deal for your brain. Let's
take walking, for example. A walk around the block fits the bill as "exercise."
But how many times have you done that? Is it new? Is it challenging? If
your answers lead you to conclude that this activity isn't that challenging,
it's time to switch it up. What if you walked in a different direction
around the block? What if you moved the environment of your walk to a
place you've never walked before? What if you picked up the pace?
Or tried a “walking meditation”? These are questions to ask
yourself and simple ways to evaluate whether the activity is a good amount
"new and challenging" for your brain.
Learning something new and challenging while regularly moving your body
is healthy fuel for your brain. More and more research today confirms
that these elements are also protective armor against cognitive dysfunction
and neurologic diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease later
in life. No matter how old you are, and even if you can't "see"
the benefits, consistently challenging your brain to new experiences and
activities will work wonders today and well into the future.