If it seems like you’ve heard conflicting advice in the media about brain games and other ways to make your brain “younger,” you’re right. A few years ago, pricey brain-game software (and hours at the computer) were thought to accomplish this…and then, soon after, almost completely discredited. In fact, physical exercise, like Ping-Pong and dancing, have held the brain-preservation spotlight recently.
Well, our knowledge about what can really keep your brain humming keeps getting better, and now, according to a new study from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, simple yet direct brain-training exercises—not games—should be part of any plan to keep your brain young because they can make your brain act 20 years younger. Will this be the last word on brain preservation? Of course not. But when it comes to these latest exercises, they are proved scientifically…they don’t take up a lot of time…and it won’t cost you anything to try them.
For the 12-week study, 58 cognitively normal people ranging in age from 56 to 75 were randomly divided into three groups—a cognitive-training group, a physical exercise group and a control group.
Members of the cognitive-training group attended weekly 60-minute sessions where they participated in cognitive exercises designed by the researchers that were intended to strengthen “innovative cognition,” which is needed for adaptive and flexible thinking—the ability to react to challenging and changing life demands. They also spent two hours a week on homework assignments involving these exercises (we’ll share three of them below).
Members of the exercise group did three 60-minute physical workouts per week, alternating between a treadmill and stationary bike. The control group just went on with their lives as usual.
Using MRI scanners, researchers measured how well participants’ neurons were working (their “connectivity”), blood flow in the brain and the amount of glucose (energy) their brains used at the beginning, middle and end of the study. Only members of the cognitive-training group showed significant changes—a 30% increase in neuron connectivity on average, an 8% increase in blood flow, the brain’s energy supply, and a 17% increase in regional white matter, the fiber bundles that connect different parts of the brain.
Translation? At the end of the study, the cognitive-training group had, on average, improved their brains’ fitness so that they worked in many ways like the brains of people 20 years younger. The improved blood flow and regional connectivity were associated with an enhanced ability to think creatively and perform complex reasoning. Thus, greater brain fitness produced higher cognitive performance.
Important: Even though the physical exercise group did not show improved brain function, don’t skip fitness workouts. Exercise still conveys benefits ranging from increased fitness and overall physical health to reduced inflammation—and inflammation can be harmful to the brain. So physical exercise does help your brain but in different ways.
BRAIN EXERCISES THAT WORK
Here are three of the study’s cognitive exercises that you can use to improve your brain function starting right now…
Strategic attention. Every day, identify two daily tasks that require fairly deep thinking, such as tracking and analyzing your budget, following a complex new recipe, writing meaningful, personal thank-you notes—or pondering the actionable takeaways from an article about the benefits of cognitive exercises.
Then carve out two 30-minute uninterrupted sessions to focus on them. Choose the time of day you usually feel sharpest. But no matter when it is, make sure that the environment is quiet—no cell phones or any other devices to distract you. And don’t get up for a snack or a drink or do anything that will take you off your task during these 30-minute blocks. Why? Because it can take up to 20 minutes to get back on track after an interruption.
Benefit: Over time, you’ll find that you can accomplish tasks more quickly and with greater focus.
Five by five.Five times a day, intentionally do nothing for five minutes. Stop whatever you’re doing—step away from your desk or laptop, for instance—and let your brain rest, empty out and reset. Just as the muscles in your body need a rest after a long run or strenuous workout, your brain needs to rest after working hard. Do not use the time to plan your vacation or the rest of your day in your head or anything of the sort. You can take a walk or sit still, but don’t read, play music or listen to an audiobook. Enjoy the silence and lack of stimulation.
Sometimes it will be obvious when you need these breaks, such as when pushing yourself to keep going on a task is netting little result.
Benefit: Taking brain breaks helps you find clarity, collect your thoughts and, often, see things in a new way.
Innovative thinking. Become aware of and increase the moments when your brain innovates—in other words, create more “aha” moments. You say that it’s not possible to purposely create innovative thoughts? Oh, yes, it is! The trick is to get yourself out of your familiar ruts—try a new experience, take on a new challenge, seek ways to improve an existing relationship or an ongoing logistical challenge. Brain “aha” moments usually come when you have brain downtime, when you are in the shower, driving without the radio on or in nature with no earbuds. The more you embrace the brain’s capacity to improve even routine activities, tasks and conversations, the greater will be your innovative brainpower.
Start by trying to have at least one innovative thought each day, and work your way up from there as you get better at it. But don’t just think these thoughts. As soon as you realize that you see a better way to do or say something, write it down and put some aspect of it into practice. Keep an innovation diary, and challenge yourself to see how many times you innovate each day or week. The strongest brain changes come with the implementation of innovative ideas—just thinking them is not enough.
Benefit: By challenging yourself to do and act on innovative thinking, you put your brain in unknown territory and activate the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, the brain’s wonder drug that speeds learning and makes it longer lasting. Additionally, innovative problem-solving helps reduce your fear of failure and fear of the unknown—the awe of a new experience actually recharges the brain.
Carving out blocks of time and keeping a tally of your brain breaks and innovation attempts can seem daunting at first. It’s OK to start slowly and gradually add to the time you spend on cognitive exercises. Once you start seeing the benefits in your daily life, you’ll want to make more time for these exercises, and they will become a habit. And that’s key: For cognitive exercises to work, you need to do them regularly.