Brain Exercises to Sharpen Your Cognitive Skills for Maximum Performance

Do you walk into a room and forget why you went in there to find? Are you consistently taking longer to find solutions to problems that you would have solved in your younger days?

Are you finding that you can’t process information as fast as you did when you were younger? 

You probably spend at least a couple of hours each week working out your body–doing cardio, weight training, or even walking during work. You’re exercising your muscles to stay flexible and strong, your joints to stay fluid, and your body’s physical systems to run optimally.

But how much time do you spend working out your brain?

Brain training isn’t a new concept. It can help us hold information, recall facts more quickly, and sharpen our motivation.

Even a brief training of brain exercises can help older adults improve cognitive skills, reasoning skills, and, overall cognitive function.  

The brain is the most multifaceted organ of the body. It controls multiple bodily functions, interprets incoming corporeal information, and processes our emotions. It is also the seat of retention, intelligence, and creativity. Although the brain gets plenty of exercise daily, certain activities may help boost brain function and connectivity. 

This, in turn, may help protect the brain from age-related degeneration. The brain is always active, even during sleep. However, certain activities can engage the brain in new ways, potentially enhancing memory, cognitive function, or creativity.

Cognitive Fitness Should be Your Number #1 Goal to Keep Your Brain Sharp

What is cognitive fitness? Cognitive fitness goes far beyond memory. It holds thinking, learning, recognition, communication, and sound decision-making. Cognitive fitness is the foundation of a rewarding and self-sufficient life.

The brain is a complex organ that controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger, and every process that regulates our body. The brain and spinal cord that encompasses it comprise the central nervous system.

The brain sends and receives chemical and electrical signals through the body. Different signals control different progressions, and your brain interprets each. Some make you feel tired, for example, while others make you feel hurt or depressed.

Some messages are set aside within the brain, while others are relayed through the spine and across the body’s vast system of nerves to distant extremities. The central nervous system depends on billions of neurons (nerve cells) to communicate these message signals and allow you to move, think, and feel.

How Cognitive Function Is Designed Over a Lifetime

The performance reveals a hump-shaped pattern over the life cycle. Individual cognitive performance increases abruptly until the early 20s, then reaches a plateau, peaking around 35 years, and then undergoes a sustained decline at higher ages.

According to Murman, MD, the most important changes in cognition with normal aging are a decline in cognitive task performance that requires quick processing or transforming information to make decisions. This includes the brain’s ability to quickly process information, working memory, and execute cognitive functions. 

The great news is you can take steps to prevent the decline of your cognitive functions in the later years and enjoy activities that build and strengthen your brain’s brain functions and overall performance. 

When it comes to brain health, keeping your mind active is a really great idea.  

The brain is “elastic” and can continue to grow, develop, and make connections from birth until well into old age.  When you challenge your brain with new and effortful activities, you help to build your “cognitive reserve.” 

As you invest in your physical health to strengthen your muscles and heart, invest in brain exercises to help boost your cognitive health, improve your memory, and sharpen your brain. 

Here are 10 steps you can take to strengthen your Cognitive Health!

1. Watch TV and read “actively.”

Watching TV intently image

The difference between watching “The Bachelorette” and watching an educational science show is how active your brain has to be. Watching TV is cognitively enriching when it takes effort to understand what you’re watching or sparks questions, ideas, or “aha” moments.

The same is true for reading. A celebrity tabloid magazine takes less brain power to flip through than a magazine such as Smithsonian.

Develop new connections in your brain by reading something instructive instead of merely entertaining. After reading or watching TV, make yourself recall what you just learned. This exercise boosts retention.

2. Take up a new hobby.

Increase cognitive enrichment by taking on a new active pursuit that requires learning instead of merely attending a baseball game or concert.

Some examples include: gardening, antiquing, taking up an instrument, or learning a foreign language. 

Read books, talk to experts, take classes, attend conferences, or join organizations related to your hobby.

All of this learning activity develops new connections between neurons, which helps offset cell loss due to aging or disease.

3. Solve all types of puzzles.

Puzzles are an outstanding way to build new connections in the brain. There are many types of puzzles other than crosswords. These include acrostics, cryptograms, syllacrostics, and many other word-oriented brain teasers.

Some brain teasers don’t involve words at all, such as Sudoku. It’s particularly good for your brain to seek out a variety. Or start with one type and, as you get better, switch to another type of puzzle.

Your brain will establish new connections for each particular type of puzzle.

4. Play board games and card games.

Games involving strategy are excellent for the brain, especially those involving puzzle solving or new learning, such as Scrabble, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire—all available in digital form as well. 

Chess and checkers are excellent games because almost every game is unique, requiring different strategies each time.

Card games can similarly help preserve cognitive functioning because the player continues to perfect the most effective strategies according to the opponent’s playing style. You can also play card games with a computer!

5. Visit museums, zoos, and historical sites.

young woman walking to museum image

There are many specialty museums as well as zoos and historical sites that will help you build better cognition.

Don’t be a passive visitor to get the most out of the visit from a cognitive standpoint. Read the signage next to the exhibits, try to repeat the key information to yourself, and then do it again once or twice during or after your visit.

Not only will you retain what the exhibits were about, but with some occasional recall attempts, you increase the odds of being able to recall the information months or even years later.

6. Become a student again.

Many continuing education courses are available that do not require being in a degree program—you merely sign up for one or two courses that interest you and budget your time to invest in these courses. 

Relatively inexpensive courses are available through community colleges. As a student, you will get many chances to learn new things, and most instructors will give you tests that will force you to recall the information learned.

Non-degree classes are offered in many areas, from technical subjects to local community history, public speaking, relationships, poetry, and other friendly topics.

7. Attend workshops.

Workshops, conferences, and other gatherings where professionals in their field share their knowledge offer another way to build cognitive function through active learning.

While these are commonly offered in a person’s profession, many others may be connected with hobbies and personal interests.

8. Nurture Social Connections

social gathering image
People have dinner together at a table in a cafe. Happy friends eat burgers and drink cocktails in the restaurant.

People vary in the degree to which they seek out the company of other people, but we share the fundamental need to interact with others.

A wealth of evidence shows that positive relationships and shared activities contribute to our well-being. The National Research Council reviewed studies where greater social engagement – measured in contact with family and friends and participating in social activities, has been shown to reduce cognitive decline over 3, 6, and 12-year periods. 

Conversely, loneliness and social isolation increase health risks in older people. Various life events, such as retirement, bereavement, and ill health, can reduce social networks and make it harder to stay active socially.

9. Eat a Plant-Based Diet

Many brain-essential nutrients can be found in whole foods, which are unprocessed and derived mostly from plant sources. These foods high in brain-essential nutrients are called “brain foods” and do not contain harmful fats or sugars that can damage your brain.

Green, leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard do wonders for your brain. A study found that just one serving of greens daily can delay cognitive decline. These veggies are power-packed with folate, vitamin K, and beta-carotene, all linked to greater memory and thinking skills.

Just one serving of raw spinach contains 121 percent of the daily value of vitamin K, which is linked to a lower risk of cognitive disorders, suggests a 2015 study published in Nutrients. Add leafy greens to your salad or smoothie for a hearty, brain-boosting meal. 

10. Exercise Regularly

Physical activity can condition your heart, lungs, and muscles and improve your cognitive health—helping you think, learn, problem-solve, and enjoy an emotional balance.

It can improve memory and reduce anxiety or depression. But you don’t have to be a fitness guru to reap the benefits. Any amount of physical activity can help. No matter your age or fitness level, physical activity can help improve sleep, brain health, and quality of life.

11. Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is a hot commodity nowadays. Most of us have little time in our business life to get enough good sleep. 

More than 60 percent of Americans report that their sleep needs aren’t met during a typical week.

 Illness, psychological distress, and medication can all interfere with adequate sleep. Add to that the normal physiological changes of the aging brain, and it’s no wonder that older adults commonly complain of insomnia.

Recent research suggests ongoing sleep deficits could take a considerable toll on the brain. Experts agree quality sleep is critical to cognitive function, especially in the short term.

Studies show sleep deprivation hinders learning, impairs cognitive performance, and slows reaction time.

Brain Game to Boost Your Brain

As we get older, we can keep our minds sharp so we don’t get frustrated by slow reactions, forgetfulness, and lack of creativity. 

Exercising your brain increases “cognitive reserve,” which is your brain’s resilience or ability to cope with stress and challenges. The cognitive activities of learning a new skill help keep your mind sharp and is a great way to boost memory and stimulate your brain. 

Challenging your brain with regular mental exercise is just as important as physical activity!

Like your muscles, your brain improves with use. Lifelong learning and flexing your brain will sharpen your mind and even change your brain for better performance. 

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