3) Mental Exercise.
There are many analogies between physical fitness and mental fitness. To stay adaptable and able to cope with stresses and body and mind must have an innate level of fitness. Just as we struggle to climb stairs if we are not physically fit, so we struggle to solve problems if we have not exercised our minds to do so. For both muscle and brain adaptability the old adage is true “use it or lose it”. Importantly, we also know that the more we have used our brains throughout life the more protected we are from developing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease. We also know that the more we use our brains the more connections form between one neuron and the others around it. The more densely connected neurons are to each other the more they can find ways to continue to communicate when the brain is under attack for instance, from conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease and stroke.
So what should we do exactly to exercise our neurons? Essentially any use of one’s brain that requires effort is beneficial. And generally speaking, just like physical fitness, the more difficult and prolonged the task the more the brain has to physically change and grow to adapt. But also just like a physical fitness program – we are more likely to continue to work on something that is not too strenuous than if we over tax ourselves when we are more likely to abandon a program. And also just like a physical fitness program we are more likely to continue a mental fitness program if it is fun. So games of almost any description are good exercises for the brain – this includes card games, crossword puzzles, sudoku, on line games but preferably ones with elements of learning and novelty. Games in the context of social settings may be particularly stimulating because the parts of the brain engaged with social functioning are also active. More difficult but rewarding (from a cognitive fitness viewpoint) are pass-times like mathematics. Doing math mentally is particularly difficult for a lot of people but the constant mental arithmetic is a great way to expand neural connections in that part of the brain which subserves calculation. In general, it’s good to mix up mental tasks to give the brain a work out in different areas which tends to enrich connections between diverse parts of the brain – a phenomenon particularly associated with high performance. Different parts of the brain you may want to “work out” are those that deal with language (learn a new one or brush up on an old one you once learnt or just expand your mother tongue), memory (consciously memorize lists, names, news events and recall them later), visuospatial skills (mentally retrace your steps in places you’ve visited or lived in), music (take up an instrument) and attention (try several common tasks one in rapid succession forcing yourself to switch attention from one to the next).
Finally, be aware that there are more and more brain fitness programs coming available on line. Have fun exploring these but choose one that you think you will want to be using a year from now.