When we think about getting ourselves in shape, we usually think of exercising our bodies.
Pushing our muscles with weights to gain strength, raising our heart rate with cardio for endurance, eating the right foods to stay healthy — all help our bodies be the best they can be.
But what about our brains?
Our brains set us apart from every other living thing. Much of our success, productivity, and satisfaction in life depends on our brains being in good shape.
It’s true that physical exercise does help brain function, in addition to it being good for the body. I dedicated a previous blog article to the benefits of physical exercise for brain function.
But in addition to physical exercise and diet, it’s very beneficial to do focused mental exercises to strengthen your brain capabilities. Think of it like this: physical exercise helps your general brain function (like neurons firing efficiently for example). However, performing mental exercises targets specific capabilities of your brain in the same way that bench presses target the strengthening of your chest muscles.
Here are some examples of brain capabilities you can strengthen with brain exercises:
- Logical thinking
- Focus / concentration
- Language / Comprehension
- Strategic thinking
- Calculation ability
The saying is true for both body and mind: use it or lose it. And the harder you work at it, the more results you get.
Now let’s look at eight brain exercises you can do to strengthen your mind.
We rely so much on storing information we need later on our computers and phones, as well as writing things down. The result is that many of us do very little memorization.
Yet memorization is a great way to exercise your mind.
For this brain exercise, make it a game to memorize things — even when there is no need to. For example, memorize friends’ phone numbers, and dial them when you call instead of clicking on their contacts.
Or when you have a grocery list that is not too large, commit it to memory. Use tricks to be able to recall what the items are — even visualizing the flow of the store, and where you would be picking up your items.
Memorize your driver license number, and your credit card number (including the security code on the back).
Another exercise is to take some poems, or excerpts from books that you enjoy, and work on memorizing them. Your goal can be repeating the whole poem or excerpt without looking.
Memorizing things can be fun, and it strengths your focus and of course your memory skills.
Doing Jigsaw Puzzles
Jigsaw puzzles are fun, relaxing — and a very good brain exercise.
Putting together jigsaw puzzles requires spacial visualization. You form a picture of the completed puzzle in your mind as you scan all the puzzles pieces, so you can assemble the picture. You also use logic and focus, planning how you are going to approach the puzzle, and concentrating on solving the problem of fitting together the shapes of the pieces to make the completed picture.
Challenge yourselves to harder and harder puzzles to really push — and strengthen — many areas of your brain at once!
Sudoku is a popular game involving numbers that can really challenge your brain. You can start with easier ones to get the hang of it, then progress to harder ones as you get more successful at doing them.
The way sudoku is solved involves heavy use of both your memory and logic, in order for you to figure out how to place the numbers on the puzzle to solve it. Sudoku will also exercise your focus and concentration, which is also needed to solve the puzzle.
In addition to the mental workout, playing sudoku is fun. It’s extremely satisfying seeing all your mental effort result in a completed puzzle.
As everyone has probably gathered, meditation is great for us in many ways.
You may not think of meditation as a brain exercise though since its key point is to minimize thinking.
However, meditation really is a great exercise for the brain.
The main area that mediation improves is mental focus. The brain has billions of neurons all firing together handling a large variety of tasks at one time.
There are actually mechanisms of the brain that allow you to block out thoughts and stimuli that do not apply to the task you are trying to accomplish. This inhibiting ability is crucial for focus and attention — and meditation strengthens this ability.
Meditation allows you to quiet your mind and guide your focus to where you want. It may be your breath through breathing focus, or feelings in specific areas of the body for body scanning.
As you get better and better at meditation you will find your focus and attention improving greatly in everyday life.
Mental Math Calculations
Like memorization, doing math in your head is rarely needed anymore in daily life. All you have to do is reach for your phone — even asking it with your voice — and you can have any calculation you need performed for you.
Performing mental math though is great for developing your analytical and problem-solving skills. Make it a point to calculate that restaurant tip in your head, and other daily computations without having it done for you.
Also, you can make it an activity where you increasing give yourself harder math problems to solve in your head, and then see if you got it right. You do not have to do complex math like calculus for example — just adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing large groups of numbers is good.
If you are so inclined though, by all means, get into more advanced mathematics in order to really exercise your brain. You could find it a lot more fun as an adult than when you were a captive student learning it.
Doing crossword puzzles is a great way to exercise cognitive and memory functions. They are also fun to do, and many people make a regular routine of doing them. It’s a low-stress way to keep you occupied and relaxed.
Stretch yourself sometimes by doing different kinds of crossword puzzles — both in the rules and format of the grid, and the subject matter. You could also give yourself a time limit to complete the puzzle, to further push yourself mentally.
Increase Your Vocabulary
Learning new words is a great way to exercise your brain. Not only do you stimulate your brain by memorizing the spelling and the meaning of a word, but you also learn to pronounce it and use it properly in sentences –both in speech and writing.
Also, you learn the different forms of the word such as tense and plural usage. You use your memory by remembering the word for future use.
A good way to approach increasing vocabulary is by noting words you do not know while reading, and stop and learn all about them. You’ll find doing this fun, and educational, while expanding your communication skills!
Another good way of exercising your memory and visualization skills is to draw a map of some recent outing you have had.
Drawing the map by hand is perfectly fine. You can challenge yourself to draw it as close to scale as possible. It can be a route of a driving trip you took, or a walk, or even your route through a store.
As an example, after grocery shopping, you could draw a map showing where you parked, your walking path to the store door, then your route through the store — indicating by annotation where you picked up items, and what they were (extra credit, indicate the price). You can also show the checkout register layout and which one you entered.
Use your imagination to vary this activity. The end result is to record visually and by memory various places you have been, and creatively indicating key points of interest related to what you did.
Your mind, like your muscles, needs exercise to acquire and maintain its strength. Make it a habit to do at least some activity to keep pushing your mental capabilities. Not only can this improve your cognitive and memory skills, but it can also be fun and relaxing.
Also, reference this previous article on relaxing hobbies. These hobbies also provide brain exercise while being focused more on relieving stress.