Why you should take up a creative hobby this year
The best brain exercises to sharpen your mind
Exercising our brains is every bit as important as exercising our bodies. Most of us don't consider our brains as a body part that needs exercise, or even give a thought to its health until something goes wrong. However, exercising your brain can help you improve your attention span, sharpen your focus and boost your chances of it performing to its full potential throughout your life.
The importance of brain health
You might not know where to start when it comes to brain training. It may feel difficult to monitor your progress too, since the results won't be visual the way that they are after you frequent the gym and build muscle. However, Michelle Reshef, founder of Dementia Prevention UK, stresses the importance of brain health by encouraging you to look at your reflection in a mirror and note what you see.
"As you move through life, you spot changes in your physical appearance. You might notice changes in your face, for example. So, your brain has also been through changes as time has passed - you just can't see them. Just as you make an effort to preserve your outer shell - perhaps by using a cream to prevent wrinkles - you should go to the same efforts to protect your brain as it ages."
Stretching your brain
Reshef says that maintaining a healthy lifestyle, being sociable and being aware of your mental health are important to ensure your brain is active and healthy, but you should also make sure that you stretch your brain.
There are two basic ways to stretch your brain: the first is to make sure your brain is stimulated and the second is to practise flexible thinking.
"Make sure that your brain is being stimulated frequently. Most of us keep a busy brain, doing more of the same. Routine keeps the brain healthy and busy but not stimulated. Therefore, at least once a day you should introduce something new and exciting to your brain. If something is challenging for you, or feels different, then it's helping to increase brain activity since you're adjusting to something you aren't used to."
Some simple ways of doing this include:
- Ending your emails in a different way instead of usual “kind regards".
- Switching your lunch to a different time.
- Eating lunch with people from the office you never talk to.
- Using your non-dominant hand for 15 minutes of activity.
"The second important element in maintaining a healthy brain is to adopt flexible thinking. You can do this from time to time by analysing a situation from as many points as you can," suggests Reshef.
Some ways to do this include:
- Observing artwork you usually don't like.
- Watching a TV show you haven't previously shown interest in.
- Listening to a different style of music.
- Cooking a new, unusual recipe.
Reshef also stresses the importance of creativity, and recommends creating something new every day.
Nurturing your brain's creativity can help you become better at problem solving, more focused, and more self-aware; it can help you find clarity when your mind feels cluttered.
Other brain training exercises
- Doing puzzles - these might be crosswords, word searches, sudoku puzzles or jigsaws.
- Playing card games.
- Drawing maps of your town from memory.
- Teaching yourself a new skill.
- Learning a foreign language.
- Taking up a new sport.
- Recalling lists - make a list of groceries and memorise it, then see if you can recall it an hour later.
- Solving mental maths equations.
The importance of brain exercises
"The ability to be flexible in your thinking is a necessary skill for dealing with life's inevitable changes. It helps you adjust more easily to new circumstances, challenges and situations as they arise. It also helps your brain to find alternative solutions to problems," says Reshef.
She adds that once you start doing a brain workout each day, you will see improvement in:
- Cognitive ability.
- Focus and concentration.
- Meeting targets.
- Teamwork ability.
- Leadership skills.
- High performance.
- Good mental health.
"A brain that is constantly searching for new solutions and that is stimulated is a brain that develops new connections. The more connections you have in your brain, the more protected your brain is. It also becomes more capable in all aspects of life and lowers your risk of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia," says Reshef.
Can physical exercise also be beneficial for the mind?
As well as brain-training exercises, physical exercise can also provide psychological benefits.
Personal trainer Simone Yewdall says it is widely known that physical exercise increases dopamine and decreases the production of stress-related hormones, but few know of the benefits physical activity has on overall brain health. She says this can include factors such as improved focus and better memory, both in young and in older adults.
"The direct effects of exercise on the brain include the promotion of new brain cells, stimulation of communication between the cells, and the prevention of loss of brain volume as you age. The indirect benefits of exercise are just as important: they include reduced anxiety and stress, better sleep and improved mood, all of which impact brain development and health."
Simone adds that studies recommend 20-30 minutes of daily moderate-intensity aerobic activity like jogging, swimming, and cycling for improved brain health.
"The simplest way to incorporate this into your daily routine is to get outside in nature for a walk every day. If you're looking to incorporate weight training into your routine, be sure to add compound lifts in."