Give your brain a workout

By Sari Harrar

Put your mental powers to the test with 5 fun activities that can help keep your brain sharp.

It’s no secret that doing crossword puzzles can help keep your brain sharp as you get older. Studies as recent as a 2019 report in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry have linked crosswords to sharper brains in later life. But the popular word game isn’t the only way to maintain good mental function as you get older.

In fact, there are dozens of ways to keep your mind active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls out dancing as a way to help maintain your brain’s memory recall and planning skills. That’s because it takes focus to learn and remember dance moves and keep the rhythm. 

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends volunteering, taking up a new hobby, or signing up for a class as good ways to keep your mind active and nimble. The NIA points to research that shows that learning fun activities may help protect the brain by “establishing cognitive reserve,” so that your brain is in a better position to “compensate for age-related brain changes.”

“You don’t need an expensive digital gadget or a special brain-training program,” says Yonas E. Geda, M.D., professor and director of global neuroscience at the Barrow Neurological Institute. “Simple everyday activities such as a leisurely walk after dinner can reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment. ” 

Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is a condition marked by early indications of brain problems, explains Dr. Geda. It can be an early phase of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

“Challenging activities may protect the brain by encouraging the growth of new brain cells and new connections in the hippocampus, a brain area important for information storage,” he says. “Mental activity is like pouring water on a flower so it can flourish.” 

His best advice? Eat a well-balanced diet, get plenty of sleep and do some type of exercise every day. Then, sprinkle in the following five brain challenges to round out your day.  

Brain challenge #1: Solve a puzzle

Older adults who did daily word or number puzzles scored highest on tests of memory, focus, reasoning and mental processing speed in two 2019 studies from the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter. Those older adults who played word puzzles also matched the scores of people eight years younger than they were when taking short-term memory tests.  

Bonus booster: If your current puzzle type is starting to seem easy or even boring, move up to a slightly higher level of difficulty, Dr. Geda suggests. Or switch from word puzzles to number ones, or vice versa. “You want to challenge your brain, but not stress yourself out,” he notes. “Avoid perfectionism. Aspiring for a perfect outcome discourages us from taking the first step.”  

Brain challenge #2: Dust off your board games  

From Monopoly and Scrabble to chess and checkers, playing board games is another fun way to challenge your brain. In a 2020 University of Edinburgh study of more than 1,000 women and men in their 70s, those who played these kinds of games often experienced slower declines in memory and thinking skills, compared to those who didn’t have a regular game night. 

The study tracked participants since age 11, but researchers found that people who picked up the board game habit later in life also experienced the positive brain-health benefits.  

Bonus booster: The study above looked at games that come in a box or that you can hold in your hands.

Brain challenge #3: Grab a stopwatch 

Got a minute? Fast brainteasers like these could be mentally stimulating, Dr. Geda says. 

  • Count backward from 100 to 1. Make it more difficult by counting backward by threes, sixes, sevens or nines. Try to count as quickly as you can. 

  • Write down the names of as many movies as you can think of in 60 seconds. Change it up by listing flowers, trees, U.S. state capitals or the names of countries.

  • Draw a map from memory. Pick your own neighborhood, the downtown of a city you know well or your favorite vacation spot.

Bonus booster: Fit a variety of brain challenges into your day or week. 

Brain challenge #4: Find your rhythm 

Physical activity is a proven way to help keep your brain sharp. Combining movement with mental stimulation may be even more beneficial in slowing cognitive decline than either alone, according to recent research. 

Consider it the excuse you need to clear some space and take up the cha-cha, the hustle or any other fun, dance-based exercise routine. The CDC recommends starting with a short 5- or 10-minute dance session until you’ve built up your endurance. 

Or try walking around in your own home while you talk on the phone, Dr. Geda suggests. (Make sure you have a safe area without any trip hazards.) The areas of the brain that control planning, organizing and focusing may get strengthened by adding in a layer of movement, he explains. 

“Every little bit you do helps,” he says. 

Bonus booster: If you already enjoy dancing regularly, find a new routine to learn. You can search the internet to find instructional dance videos in different styles — everything from ballroom to Broadway to disco. 

Brain challenge #5: Tap into your inner artist 

Knitting, embroidery, woodworking, painting — pick whatever arts-and-crafts project sounds enjoyable and get creative. 

“Arts and crafts require focus, planning, problem-solving and creativity,” Geda notes. 

Brain booster: If you’ve never been much of a hobbyist, it’s not too late to start. Ask a friend who crafts to teach you some of the basics to get started, or look up how-to videos for different projects on the internet.

Keep brain health top of mind

Learn simple strategies to keep your mind sharp and help prevent dementia, depression, anxiety and more.

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