Taking steps to boost brain function is often a top priority for many people, especially later in life. Up until about two decades ago, it was widely believed that humans could only produce new brain cells up until a certain age. But research has shown that the brain is capable of changing throughout our entire life span – growing new cells, forming new connections, and even increasing in size.
Interestingly, unless mental decline is caused by a specific illness, the majority of age-related cognitive decline is the result of a lack of brain exercise. Just as we exercise to maintain our physical health, brain exercises are important for strengthening our minds, boosting memory, and improving cognitive function. It’s simple really: if you don’t use your brain, you’ll lose knowledge.
Luckily, research has shown that certain activities can help to maintain mental sharpness – with some methods capable of stalling the onset of dementia for up to five years.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of nine different activities that are proven to help keep the mind sharp.
1. Practise a healthy lifestyle
Before exploring different activities that can boost brain function, it’s important to address the importance of practising an overall healthy lifestyle first. If you want to look after your mind, then you have to take care of your body too. Without this foundation, it’ll be tricky to truly reap any other benefits.
Time and time again, research has shown that people who engage in healthy behaviours – including exercise and proper nutrition – are at lower risk of cognitive decline. This includes being more active during the day, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding unhealthy habits such as excessive alcohol consumption and smoking.
This study, which analysed the lifestyle behaviours of men over the course of 30 years, found that those who practised healthy behaviours were around 60% less likely to experience cognitive decline and dementia as they aged.
In addition, research has shown that engaging in just 45 minutes of exercise three times per week actually increases the volume of the brain, helping people to perform significantly better at exercises like planning, scheduling, and multitasking.
You’ll find plenty of healthy lifestyle inspiration in the fitness and exercise, or diet and nutrition sections of our site. From specific exercise guides, to healthy recipe ideas. You can also read more about the link between exercise and brain health in our article How exercise can lead to better brain health.
2. Try using your non-dominant hand
It’s interesting to think about the distinct abilities of our left and right hands. How is it that we can use one for everything but often struggle to write one word neatly with the other?
In his book Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness, neurobiologist Lawrence Katz recommends non-dominant hand exercises to strengthen the mind.
This study found that after ten days of writing exercises 89% of subjects experienced increased speed, accuracy, and smoothness in their non-dominant hands. Researchers concluded that this was a result of the new neural pathways that the exercises had created in the brain.
Experts at Concorde Career Colleges recommended a few simple ways to exercise the non-dominant hand. These include writing your name or drawing straight lines, completing daily tasks like brushing your teeth or your hair, buttering toast, using a computer mouse, and practising your handwriting daily – all with your non-dominant hand.
Remember, it may feel extremely unnatural and time consuming to begin with, but that’s exactly the point. The difficulty is evidence of how much these exercises will be testing your brain.
3. Practise mindfulness and meditation
Meditation and mindfulness are often assumed to be the same thing. Meditation is generally about gaining a healthy sense of perspective and learning to observe your feelings without judgement. Mindfulness on the other hand, is more about living in the present moment and engaging fully with your different senses.
Research suggests that regularly engaging in these practices can create new neural pathways, resulting in advanced observational skills and mental flexibility. It’s also been shown to improve focus, attention, empathy, and even immunity.
Meditation and mindfulness are skills that can take time to become accustomed to. However, with practise, they can easily be incorporated into your daily routine as a way to boost brain function – for example, through exercises like mindful cooking.
4. Draw a map of your town from memory
Research has shown that drawing is more effective than reading or writing when it comes to keeping the mind sharp. This is because drawing is an active – rather than passive – exercise and requires people to process information in multiple ways.
Drawing information especially, is a powerful way to boost memory and has been shown to increase people’s recall by nearly double.
One way of drawing information is to create a map of your local area from memory – including all major streets, smaller side streets, and local landmarks. You might feel like you know your neighbourhood pretty well, but it can be surprising just how much you miss.
However, if you find this too easy, why not challenge yourself by drawing somewhere less familiar? For example, a map of American states, or of European countries.
5. Listen to music or learn to play an instrument
The benefits of music – whether you listen or produce it – are well-documented. Not only is listening to or playing music enjoyable, but it can also help to keep the mind sharp by improving memory function, and boosting IQ and academic performance.
Plus, as well as having a direct impact on brain health, music also reduces various risk factors that are linked with cognitive decline. For example, music can reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep quality, and enhance sports performance – all of which, if neglected, can negatively impact brain function.
Learning to play an instrument in particular, has been shown to be highly effective in keeping the mind sharp. For inspiration on how to get started, have a read of our article 7 musical talents that are easier for adults to learn.
Alternatively, you can continue reading about the link between music and cognitive function in our article 12 benefits of introducing more music into your life. Or, for more ideas on how to connect with music, have a read of our articles How to get involved with music from home and 10 of the best Spotify playlists for every mood.
6. Take up Tai Chi
While we know that exercise in general is important for brain health, Tai Chi specifically has been identified as particularly effective when it comes to maintaining mental sharpness. Tai Chi can help to improve sleep quality, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve memory. It’s also a great way to re-centre and refocus your mind when life feels out of balance.
In fact, this study found that long-term Tai Chi practise can lead to structural changes in the brain and increase brain volume. Other research has shown that Tai Chi can help improve memory and executive functioning skills. This includes time management, multitasking, decision making, and concentrating for long periods of time.
Compared with other forms of exercise, Tai Chi has also been shown to be more effective at improving cognitive function and slowing the progression of dementia.
Tai Chi is also fun, low-impact, and accessible. Once you’ve learnt the basics, you’ll be able to practise Tai Chi anywhere at any time. To help you get started, have a read of our Beginner’s guide to Tai Chi.
7. Learn a new language
Science has identified a strong link between learning a new language and improved cognitive ability. This is largely because learning, remembering, and recalling grammar and vocabulary requires engagement from several different areas of the brain and improves connectivity between them.
In fact, the language learning process is thought to be capable of delaying your risk of dementia by up to five years. And studies have even suggested that learning a new language can actually make your brain bigger.
Alongside its positive impact on brain health, being bilingual can also expose you to different cultures and ideas, and open new opportunities in both your personal and work life.
If you’re unsure what language to spend time learning, hopefully you’ll feel inspired by our articles 9 most spoken languages to consider learning and 6 languages that are easier for English speakers to learn. It’s also worth considering learning British Sign Language, which, although widely used, is often overlooked as an option.
8. Learn a new skill or craft
Learning a new skill is not only fun and an interesting way to relieve boredom – but it can also improve mental sharpness. Learning a new skill requires the use of various cognitive skills like short and long-term memory, concentration, and attention to detail. These functions stimulate brain cells and cause more neural pathways to be formed.
For example, activities such as quilting may not initially seem mentally challenging, but for beginners, learning to cut out complex shapes can be very complex.
This study of people aged between 60 and 90 found that those who learned a new skill for 15 hours a week for three months had significant improvements in memory function. Experts found that this was down to the mental challenge and unfamiliarity of the skill.
If you want some ideas on new skills you can learn, then you might want to visit the learning section of our site. Here you’ll find everything from introductory guides to skills like painting, carpentry, calligraphy, photography, and birdwatching, as well as a range of online courses and digital skills that you can learn from home.
9. Take a new walking, cycling, or driving route
It’s easy to get stuck on autopilot mode when it comes to our daily routines. Especially when it comes to everyday tasks like travelling to work or to the supermarket – rarely do we change up the way we do these.
However, research has shown that switching up your walking, driving, or cycling routes can quite literally expand your brain – specifically your hippocampus, which is the area of your brain thought to be the centre of memory and emotion. An enhanced hippocampus can help to protect your memory and improve mental sharpness.
Other benefits of taking new routes include becoming a more attentive driver. For example, have you ever zoned out while driving before because you know the route so well? You might also discover new places, such as a nice restaurant or park, that even though close by, you never knew existed.
Alternatively, if you’re not ready to try a new route yet, why not try completing it on a different mode of transportation instead? These simple changes can significantly benefit the brain, change your thinking, and help maintain mental sharpness.
Maintaining mental sharpness is a top priority for many of us, especially later in life when the potential for cognitive decline becomes more relevant.
Just as we exercise to take care of our physical health, we must continue to stimulate our minds in order to look after our brain health. And luckily, science has identified various activities that can be highly effective in helping to keep the mind sharp throughout life. From making simple changes like changing up your walking route, to taking the time to learn a new skill, -chances are, you’ll reap benefits far beyond mental stimulation itself too.
What do you do to help sharpen your mind? Have you got any other activities that aren’t on our list? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.