Here at Experience Life we talk a lot about physical fitness. From strength training and cardio to mobility and relaxation, we’ve got the inside scoop on building and maintaining a strong, healthy body. My officemates have described me as a “jock,” an “athlete,” and a “gym rat” — a far cry from my clumsy, sedentary childhood persona — so, unsurprisingly, I soak all this fitness advice right up.
But while I’ve worked hard to get stronger, I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting the 3-pound mass of gray matter that sits atop my body: my brain.
It’s a shame not only because I was once an avid student (nerd pride!), but because research shows that much like my bones and muscles, my brain can be fortified and strengthened. Our brain capacity is not hardwired to peak in youth only to degenerate as we age, as some people believe; it’s actually possible to change existing brain circuitry and create new neural cells at any age.
As such, I’ve been trying to make brain health a priority alongside physical strength. I want brains and brawn. Here are some of the things I’ve been up to:
1. Continuing Education:
I’ve always loved school. Not the getting up early part, but the reading, writing, calculations, problem sets, class discussions, and even the tests were fun for me. I loved having my mind widened and blown on a daily basis. Sadly, after I finished grad school, I never made time to learn anything that wasn’t related to my work.
Recently, however, I discovered Coursera, a database of online, college-level courses that can be taken for free. Free learning is my favorite! (h/t to Facebook friend and weightlifting coach extraordinaire Tamara Reynolds of Asheville Strength for turning me on to this.) I’m currently enrolled in “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” and “Modern European Mysticism and Psychological Thought.” A course on the highlights of modern astronomy will begin in a few weeks.
2. Games and Puzzles:
Thanks to Lumosity, a web app that provides “brain training,” I’ve been working on improving my working memory, visual attention, computation, and other skills by playing simple computer games.
The science backing up the idea that brain training can improve IQ and stave off early dementia is contradictory and inconclusive. But given that the Lumosity puzzles are fun, challenging but not impossible, and short (less than 10 minutes each day), it seems like a worthwhile investment.
(Is unitasking a word? This probably doesn’t support my claim that I’m doing things to improve my brain power.)
In other words, I’m multitasking less. I used to take huge pride in being able to juggle multiple things at once and do them all well. But over time I realized that 1) the juggling was exhausting; and 2) I probably wasn’t completing my tasks as well as I thought.
Well, it turns out that multitasking is actually impossible. All I’ve been doing is splitting my brain’s resources. (No wonder I felt tired.) Even though it’s a hard habit to break, I’m making a concerted effort to focus on one thing at a time, which will hopefully make all the new things I’m learning stick.
Of course it comes back to exercise, you’re probably thinking with a roll of your eyes. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brain benefits beholden in physical activity.
“Across the board, exercise increases brain function, memory retention and other key areas of cognition up to 20 percent,” Arthur Kramer, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Experience Life in 2013.
Although Kramer and his colleagues don’t know exactly how exercise helps, they suspect the benefits are related to increased blood flow to the brain and the release of a biochemical that supports learning by helping our synapses store new information. They also found that exercise helps the brain make new neural connections and build new vascular structures. (Big muscles = big brain.)
Similarly, a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that exercise had a neuroprotective effect among older men and women. Exercise also helps reduce stress, which has been shown to negatively impact cognition and prematurely age the brain.
5. Try New Things:
Exercise is all well and good — I needed no convincing of that. The change I’ve made is to break out of my comfort zone and instead try new movements and activities. Novelty, it appears, spurs brain activity.
Among my recent gym-time discoveries are kettlebell snatches, Turkish get-ups, and the bench press. Outside the gym, I recently tried trampolining and have plans to take advantage of the snowy Minnesota winter by trying snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing for the first time. When the weather improves, I’m committed to face my fear and go skydiving.
I can’t say for sure if any of my brain-boosting tactics will benefit me in the long run. But for the time being, I’m having a lot of fun. Which, I’m certain, is also good for the brain.
Tell me: How do you give your brain a boost? Share your experiences in the comments below or tweet us @ExperienceLife.