Can you name three ways to keep your body healthy? Chances are, you can rattle off more than three pretty easily: exercise, drink water, get sleep, etc…
What about three methods for keeping your brain in shape? This one’s a little harder. Despite the fact that our brain’s health has a direct effect on our physical and psychological functioning, we rarely discuss methods for exercising our minds.
So what’s the key to keeping our cognition sharp? It may be due to neuroplasticity, or “the ability of neurons to change in form and function in response to alterations in their environment.” In other words, neuroplasticity refers to our brain’s ability to evolve as a result of new challenges.
You know how exercising a part of your body that you don’t use very often helps you build new muscles? Neuroplasticity is the cognitive version of that: when you use areas of the brain that don’t normally get much activity, you strengthen them. This process forms the basis of cognitive training programs like Lumosity and CogniFit, which aim to strengthen your mind through apps or online games. Unfortunately, the jury is out on whether these activities are actually effective, so it’s wise to find a few more reliable methods for encouraging neuroplasticity.
Not sure where to start? The following methods have been associated with increased neuroplasticity and positive changes in the brain. Try out the ones that interest you the most, and you may just reap some cognitive benefits.
Play an instrument:
There are significant neurological benefits to learning a musical instrument, possibly because doing so engages several aspects of cognition at once; playing a simple melody on the piano, for example, requires you to “[decode] visual information into motor activity, [memorize] extended passages of music” and learn to “perform skilled bimanual finger movements” all at once. Just like running a mile requires physical exertion, playing an instrument requires mental effort, making it ideal for strengthening new, cognitive areas.
In fact, musical training has been associated with benefits like enhanced spatial abilities and improvements on motor and auditory-musical tests. For older adults who run the risk of cognitive decline, playing an instrument may mitigate that risk while helping individuals retain their listening skills. In one study, a group of elderly subjects with limited musical training experienced improvements in working memory, perceptual speed, and motor skills after learning to play the piano. It’s pretty safe to say, then, that learning an instrument can be a smart investment, especially as we grow older.
This doesn’t mean you need to jump headfirst into a musical lifestyle. Feel free to start slow and explore options that fit your schedule and preferences. You might start by watching a few YouTube videos, or inquiring about lessons for adult beginners at a music studio.
Wondering which instrument is for you? Here are a few that are particularly accessible to beginners.
Mix up your physical exercise routine:
Physical activity does more than just keep our bodies fit—it’s also been shown to improve cognition and facilitate neuroplasticity. What’s more, exercise has been linked with a lower risk of dementia in elderly populations, in part because physical activity stimulates neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons.
So what are you waiting for? Reap those dual benefits of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity by engaging in new and challenging exercises. If you love running on a treadmill, try jogging at a local trail to mix up your scenery and incorporate new behaviors (like jumping over brooks or going uphill). If you love working out with others, experiment with different classes in your area. Tight on cash? Check out these free workout opportunities around the DMV.
Explore new areas
Are you familiar with the posterior hippocampus, or the region of the brain thought to control spatial awareness? A study on London taxi drivers found a direct correlation between the years a person had worked as a driver and the size of their posterior hippocampus, possibly because exploring new areas and becoming familiar with different routes improves our navigational capacity and spatial memory.
Consider this your excuse to travel—or just explore your neighborhood. Is there a new route you can take to add some variety to your daily commute? Maybe you can check out a local trail, seek out a coffee spot near your office, or challenge yourself to take a picture of one new place each weekend. DC-ers might challenge themselves to visit every spot on this list of underrated museums and galleries. You can even wing it and just hop on a train, get off on a new stop, and see what the area has in store for you. Just be sure to practice basic safety measures, like having enough money for a ride home and letting someone know you’re out exploring.
Using our brains is an important part of maintaining cognitive health throughout our lives. Thanks to plasticity, it’s never too late to try something new and boost our brain power. What are some ways that you like to exercise your brain? We’d love to hear your thoughts!
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.