Illustration: Ashley Siebels
The Whole Human

Five scientific ways you can make your brain agile

What we know from neuroscience is this: to keep working, the brain needs exercise. It needs variation on daily habits, music, and other stimulation to keep healthy.

The problem: routine takes over. We walk through the same doors every day, eat similar meals, see similar people, touch similar devices. It’s easy to feel like you’re going through the motions, rather than challenging yourself and your brain with new, engaging tasks. Here’s how to keep your brain sharp.

Immerse yourself in a hobby

If you don’t have a hobby, get one. It keeps your brain active without adding negative stress, and it gives you something to be proud of.

Catherine Holecko writes about finding a hobby that suits you well in a post for Reader’s Digest.

“Let’s clear this up right away: Finding time for a hobby is totally worth it, especially if you feel busy or stressed. Losing yourself in a project you love gives your brain a break from whatever else is bugging you. And working hard on a project boosts self-worth. You feel proud of what you’re doing and how you’re spending your time. Passive activities, like watching TV or surfing the Web, don’t offer the same benefits. Ideally, a hobby gives you escapism (like TV does), but also lets you pursue a passion and feel a sense of purpose. Most hobbies build your community, too, connecting you with friends, new and old, who share your interest,” Holecko writes.

Switch things up and use repetition

The Mayo Clinic provides information on why being “mentally active” can help with loss of memory.

“Just as physical activity helps keep your body in shape, mentally stimulating activities help keep your brain in shape — and might keep memory loss at bay. Do crossword puzzles. Play bridge. Take alternate routes when driving. Learn to play a musical instrument. Volunteer at a local school or community organization,” the site says.

How to achieve this: Don’t get stuck in the same old patterns.

A Harvard Health Publications post shows “how to keep your mind sharp,” including this strategy.

“When you want to remember something you’ve just heard, read, or thought about, repeat it out loud or write it down. That way, you reinforce the memory or connection. For example, if you’ve just been told someone’s name, use it when you speak with him or her: ‘So, John, where did you meet Camille?’” the post says.

Get some exercise

Your brain works better if you nurture the body around it as much as you can. Anyone who likes running or swimming knows that those activities offer us crucial time to think and help us generate new ideas.

Justin Rhodes, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, answers a question about being able to “think better” while working out or taking a walk in a post on Scientific American.

“Part of the reason exercise enhances cognition has to do with blood flow. Research shows that when we exercise, blood pressure and blood flow increase everywhere in the body, including the brain. More blood means more energy and oxygen, which makes our brain perform better.” Rhodes writes.

In fact, walking to think was so effective that the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs used it to become more effective at his job.

Engage the left and right sides of the body

Geil Browning writes about this neat trick in an Inc. article.

“Any activities involving interaction between the left and right sides of the body will stimulate the right and left hemispheres of the brain and allow them to communicate better. This could be as simple as touching your left knee with your right hand. Think of these as good warm-up exercises. Every workshop that I facilitate begins with these exercises. And if I had my way, every person would begin their workday with a few brain gym moves. In addition to just being good for your brain, it helps you to learn and retain information. This is especially helpful given that these days each one of us is bombarded with messages from all directions.” Browning writes.

Certain activities can help you keep your brain sharp during the daily grind. Why not adopt them now and see if your thinking seems clearer?