How to exercise your brain

Are you interested in learning how to exercise your brain? Parents, what about improving the mental agility of your children? Mental agility is the ability to think on one’s feet, solve problems, respond to new and novel ideas and information, and be creative at work. Who wouldn’t like to be blessed with these mental skills? These mental skills would be certainly helpful in the workplace and in school settings.

After almost two years of lack of physical mobility due to the pandemic, we’re all itching to get back in the saddle again. Perhaps the lack of social interaction as brought about a diminished need to compete in the workplace and produce our best work while attending school. Remote, work from home and/or hybrid policies in the workplace and in educational settings may have induced a mental stupor of sorts. Maybe our brains have become stale and stagnant as well. Or it could be that we are mentally fatigued from all of the chaos, uncertainty and turmoil of late.   A mental refresher may be in order.

Researchers have found evidence that humans can improve cognitive functioning with exercise. Just like we exercise or physical bodies to improve our physical health and well-being, we can exercise our brain to enhance our learning, thinking, reasoning, remembering problem solving, decision-making and attention.

Some of the benefits of a physical exercise regime include:

  • reduced risk of heart failure
  • lowered blood cholesterol
  • decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, and
  • lowered blood pressure

I am sure your teachers, mentors, educators and colleagues may have mentioned brain teasers, mental math, puzzles, quizzes, crossword puzzles, and Sudoku as methods for exercising your brain or ways in which to better stimulate the cognitive functioning of your child; but I’m talking about taking it to the next level.

According to Lawrence Katz, Ph.D, the James Duke Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and author of, “Keep your Brain Alive,” he offers 83 neurobic exercises to help prevent memory loss and increase mental fitness. Neurobics is the process of presenting the brain “with nonroutine or unexpected experiences using various combinations of your physical senses- vision, smell, touch, taste, and hearing, as well as your emotional sense.” (pg,4). These multi-sensory activities “stimulate patterns of neural activity that create more [dendrite] connections between different brain areas and causes nerve cells to produce natural brain nutrients, called neurotrophins, that can dramatically increase the size and complexity of nerve cell dendrites.” (ibid).

What does this mean in plainspeak? Just like physical exercise is used to strengthen different muscle groups, brain exercise such as neurobic brain exercise is used to enhance the coordination and flexibility of different areas of the brain. Dr. Katz suggests the following

Neurobic brain exercises to improve mental agility and mental fitness

  • Involve one or more of your five senses (eyesight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) in new ways (bounce a basketball with your eyes closed, take a shower or get dressed with your eyes closed, for example).
  • Combine two or more senses in unexpected ways such as holding the palms of your hands to your tv, radio or smartphones to feel the soundwaves vibrating through the speakers or watching the vu-meter or spectrum analyzer to see the sound bars bounding up and down as the music plays.
  • Engage your attention to fully experience the moment of ordinary occurrences by wearing a t-shirt with a funny slogan or phrase emblazed on the front and looking at yourself in the mirror in an attempt to read or decipher the phrase backward.
  • Switch up your routine by driving a different way to work, walking your dog along a different route, shopping for groceries in the reverse aisle order, writing, pushing the remote control button, or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
  • Start a new hobby (knitting, crocheting, fishing, building model airplane) while wearing an eye patch.

These suggestions may be great for an adult or an older adult advancing in age, what about parents who are interested in helping their child enhance their intellectual functioning? Please see below a few suggestions to support parents in this endeavor.

Nneurbotic (brain) exercises that can be used to enhance and develop healthy brain and cognitive functioning of children?

  • Help them come out of their comfort zone by expanding upon their individual interest, game, sports, and hobby areas.
  • Help the learn from their mistakes by patiently unpacking the process to identify what was done right (give praise) and what step (with specifics) could have been improved upon (give praise and recognition for trying).
  • Praise your child for taking on a multi-task project
  • Assist them with deep breathing exercises with a twist (ask them to visualize moving their breath to every part of their body).
  • Ask your child to write, draw, color or play with his non-dominant hand.
  • Ask your child to remember short lists of items forward and backward (grocery list, athletic equipment list, or batting averages of their favorite players).
  • Reserve one night each week for playing a family card or board game (UNO, Hearts, Go Fish, Speed, Yahtzee, Jenga, and Operation). These games improve concentration, frustration tolerance and problem solving.
  • Share your personal stories of accomplishing a challenging feat so that your child will understand that difficulties are a part of life and success can be achieved with the use of certain problem solving strategies.