3 important reasons to exercise your mind (and how to do it)
When you hear the word “exercise,” what comes to mind first? Strengthening muscles? Maintaining a healthy weight? Perhaps lowering blood pressure and reducing the overall risk of disease. All can help support the body.1
But that’s just part of the exercise picture. Because while it’s important to keep the body in good health, it’s vital to do the same with the brain. People can exercise their minds through certain mental and physical activities.
“As we age, memory recall can decrease and cognition becomes less sharp. Exercising the mind improves all these parameters,” says Seema Bonney, M.D., founder and medical director of the Anti-Aging & Longevity Center of Philadelphia
The brain’s ability to learn and grow is called “brain plasticity.”2 The more challenges it’s given, the better. Here are 3 key reasons to exercise the mind — and how to do it.
Lower risk of dementia
Here’s an exciting fact: As much as 40% of dementia cases could potentially be prevented or delayed by addressing modifiable risk factors.3 That could include:
- Eating healthier
- Exercising more
- Quitting smoking
- Addressing health issues
One study looked at 500,000 people who got regular exercise such as swimming laps, working out at a gym or playing a sport. Researchers found that those participants had a 35% reduced risk of developing dementia.4
There are many likely reasons why physical activity protects against dementia. For one, aerobic exercise — anything that gets your heart pumping — improves blood flow to the brain.4
If going to the gym or playing tennis isn’t your thing, not to worry. Just being active around the house can help. The study also found that people who regularly did household chores had a lower risk of dementia.4
Those who socialized with friends and family had a lower dementia risk as well. In fact, an active social life is highly connected to better health outcomes as people age.4
“Research has shown us that having strong social connections is crucial for optimal brain health. Your brain is actively creating neural connections while you’re having fun, talking and laughing,” Dr. Bonney says.
Improve your memory
Memory can naturally decline as we get older.5 But it can be improved at any age. Aerobic exercise is a particularly good memory booster.
People who did aerobic exercise for a year — versus those who just did stretching — saw a 47% improvement in their memory scores, according to one study.6 Participants also had better blood flow to their hippocampus.6 That’s the part of the brain connected to short- and long-term memory.6
There are also mental exercises that can enhance memory. They can help with remembering details, accessing a word and recalling names.7
One such exercise is known as “look, snap, connect.”7 Here’s how it works.
Say the goal is to remember later where you parked your car, for instance:
- Look: First, take a minute to focus. Study the surroundings.
- Snap: Take a mental picture of where the car is parked.
- Connect: Connect a detail, such as the parking space number B2, with something related and easy to remember. That could be the word “vitamin.”7
Boost thinking skills
To keep cognitive skills — learning and processing information — in top shape, exercise the brain daily, Dr. Bonney advises.
“This is where the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ comes into play,” she explains. “When you challenge your brain, it forms new neural connections and mental pathways. If you don’t challenge your brain with new information and projects, it will start to decline.” The brain is capable of constantly adapting and learning. Dr. Bonney recommends doing “brain exercises” each day. Those can include:
- Crossword puzzles
- Games (like sudoku or card games)
- Doing math without a calculator
Certain types of physical exercise can help improve thinking too. “Studies have shown that exercise protects your brain from shrinking as it ages. It can also promote the formation of new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis,” Dr. Bonney says.
One study found that exercises that involve coordination and a partner can be especially helpful for brain health.8 A reason for this? They challenge the brain the most.
Not only do they involve physical exercise (thus improving blood flow to the brain) — they also require reacting to someone else’s movement. In other words, these exercises literally keep people on their toes. Examples include doubles tennis, ping-pong or choreographed dance.8
The bottom line: To stay healthy, it’s important for people to exercise — body and brain. As people age, memory and cognition can begin to slip, but physical and mental exercises may help keep the mind in good shape.