Exercising our minds is just as important as exercising our bodies if we want to get the most from life. And while our brains naturally change with age, cognitive impairment doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of getting older.
Over the years scientists have frequently explored the ‘use it or lose it’ approach, which suggests that if we want our brains to stay in peak condition, we need to exercise them.
Research also shows that people who do more mentally stimulating activities have better critical thinking skills later in life.
With this in mind, here are 20 different ways to help keep your mind sharp as you age.
1. Solve puzzles or play brain games
Sudoku, crosswords, word searches, jigsaw puzzles, memory games…there’s a puzzle or a brain game out there that everyone will enjoy.
There’s a whole host of mental benefits that come with puzzle-solving; including enhanced memory function, increased IQ, and improved visual and spatial reasoning skills (the skills needed to perceive, analyse, and understand visual information).
If you’re looking for a good place to start puzzling or brain gaming, it’s worth downloading the Lumosity app, which takes scientifically-validated tasks and turns them into fun games that you can play for a few minutes each day.
After completing the games, you’ll receive actionable feedback and rich insights into your cognitive abilities. Plenty of Lumosity games are available with a free account, or you can upgrade to a premium subscription for access to all games and progress-monitoring tools.
Alternatively, you can find other options in our article; 11 free online puzzles and games to tease your brain.
2. Use your non-dominant hand to perform tasks
If you’re right-handed, consider challenging yourself to perform tasks like eating or writing using your left hand, and vice versa. Using your non-dominant hand challenges your brain and engages it in an entirely new way.
It will force your brain out of auto-pilot mode by making it think more about your movements.
This can feel incredibly awkward and tiring to start with, but this is a positive sign that your brain is working hard to develop new learning pathways. With practise, you’ll become more efficient at using your non-dominant hand.
Plus, learning to use your non-dominant hand more often can also have physical benefits, such as avoiding injury from repetitive strain.
3. Mix up your diet
It’s easy for us to stay within our comfort zone with food. Perhaps you have the same chicken wrap every day for lunch, or you find yourself choosing from the same dinner options every night out of convenience.
While there’s nothing wrong with sticking to foods you’re familiar with, every now and then it can be good to mix up your diet and try something new.
If you’re in need of some inspiration, you might like to visit the food and drink section of our website. Here, you’ll find a range of delicious suggestions, including meal ideas to suit every diet and recipes from around the world.
For example, you could have a Mexican cooking night, whip up some Thai food, or spend an afternoon baking. Increasing the variety within your diet will be a real treat for your taste buds, and will also keep your mind active while you enjoy and appreciate new flavours.
Often, when we start exploring and experimenting with different foods, we also learn more about food in general (nutritional breakdown, calories, and so on), which can help us make healthier choices. So, it’s a win win.
4. Change up your daily routine
Our brains are always working, but they have to do far less when we simply repeat the same actions over and over again.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to change up your routine every so often to keep your brain alert.
For example, if you usually walk, run, or cycle the same route, why not try going a different way next time? Or, consider slotting a new activity into your daily routine – like 10 minutes of meditation first thing in the morning.
It’s these changes in activity that help take our minds off cruise control and put them back into gear as they increase brain activity in several different areas.
For more inspiration, you might like to read our article; 18 ways to step outside of your comfort zone.
5. Learn to knit
Alongside the physical benefits of knitting, such as a reduced risk of arthritis and tendinitis, there are also plenty of mental benefits too.
When you knit, you use your whole brain. This includes the frontal lobe (responsible for planning, attention, and processing), the occipital lobe (processes visual information), the parietal lobe (deals with spatial navigation and sensory information), the temporal lobe (stores memories and interprets language and meaning), and the cerebellum (coordinates the timing of movement).
This high mental engagement helps to keep your mind sharp. As a result, knitting is often used to help people with diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s improve their motor function.
If you’ve never tried knitting before but you’d like to give it a go, it’s worth having a read of our beginner’s guide to knitting.
6. Challenge yourself to read differently
If you usually read in your head, you might like to try reading out loud or listening to an audiobook instead. This is because reading in a new way can encourage your brain to use different circuits.
You could also try reading different genres of books, or joining a book club where you’ll be exposed to different opinions and interpretations of books.
If you need some literary inspiration, head over to the books, literature, and writing section of our website.
7. Take an exercise class
Low-impact classes that focus on slow, controlled movements and breathing
Low-intensity exercise classes like yoga and Tai Chi allow us to step away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and actively engage our minds and bodies as we perform slow, controlled, and precise body movements.
Training your mind to focus intently on each body movement takes practise and so gives your mind a great workout. Research has linked both Tai Chi and yoga to improved brain health.
Faster-paced classes that involve a lot of hand-eye coordination
When you follow fast-paced routines, your brain has to work quickly to process and perform each movement. Doing this allows you to work on your hand-eye coordination, which strengthens the quality of neuromuscular communication in the brain.
This will help to improve the accuracy and speed at which you’re able to perform tasks and help with developing strength and balance. If you’re looking for somewhere, why not have a go at this Zumba Gold workout, or or check out the upcoming dance events on the Rest Less Events calendar?
8. Do sums with a pen and paper (or in your head!)
Most of us don’t think twice about using a calculator to work out maths equations. But, if you’re looking to keep your mind sharp, it can be helpful to swap your calculator for a pen and paper, or do some mental maths.
It can feel slow and time-consuming, but you might be surprised how quickly your maths skills improve with a little practise.
9. Play card games
Every card game is different, but they all require you to make decisions based on what’s put in front of you at the time.
Playing cards is a great activity for developing your problem-solving skills and helping you to think on your feet. Studies also suggest that playing cards can improve both your short and long-term memory.
10. Learn a new language
Scientists believe that learning a new language at any stage in life can help to improve your brain function.
One theory behind this is that your brain has to work harder to learn how to switch between two different languages. Learning a language can also open up new work and travel experiences, which can further stimulate and challenge your mind. Our article on the benefits of learning a new language has more information.
If you’re keen to learn a new language, but the idea overwhelms you, you might find our articles, 9 most spoken languages that are useful to learn and 6 languages that are easier for English speakers to learn, useful. These also offer tips on useful learning platforms such as Duolingo, where you can start learning a new language in bitesize chunks for just a few minutes each day.
Alternatively, you could sign up to a free or paid language course which you can browse on our website.
11. Practise mindfulness
Many people don’t initially think of mindfulness as a way to keep your mind sharp because it involves quieting your mind. But in reality, it’s all about focus, and being able to train your mind.
The ability to filter out negative thoughts and focus only on the present moment is a skill that takes practise.
Mindfulness also encourages you to engage more fully with your surroundings, and explore your senses. These heightened sensory experiences are great for stimulating your brain.
To find out more, you might like to read our introduction to mindfulness.
12. Make diverse social connections
When we spend time with others, we open ourselves up to new ideas and inspiration. And, our brain benefits most when we connect with people who are different from ourselves – for example, those with different careers, cultures, or interests.
We can learn far more from people who don’t share all the same ideas as us, than from people who do, which can lead to mental growth and stimulation.
Try to intentionally seek out people who are different from yourself. Doing so will open up your mind to new perspectives and experiences. Just because someone has interests that are wildly different to yours, doesn’t mean that you won’t get along. As the saying goes, opposites attract!
13. Rely less on technology
Technology has made so many aspects of life easier and more accessible, but it does also have drawbacks. When technology does things for us, we tend to switch off and think in far less depth than we usually would.
For example, when we use GPS navigation to drive somewhere, we’re less likely to remember how to get there without it, even after visiting the same location a few times. This is simply because we don’t need to worry about remembering it, as we can always use the satnav next time.
The days when people memorised one another’s phone numbers are also now a distant memory because our smartphones do all the work for us.
Sometimes it can help to go back to basics to really engage and develop your mind. Consider using a paper map every now and then and make a conscious effort to remember your route, or try to learn a couple of phone numbers that you know you’ll use regularly.
An example of how memorising routes can benefit your brain is to look at London cab drivers, who have to build a map of London in their minds. Before they can become licensed cabbies, they must memorise 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks.
Research has shown that the average London cab driver has a larger-than-average hippocampus (the part of the brain which is responsible for storing memories), showing how their brains have developed with their intensive memory training.
14. Learn to paint or draw
If you want to increase your concentration skills, reduce anxiety, and improve your memory, why not learn to paint or draw?
As well as being a creative outlet, research also suggests that being artistic can strengthen the neural pathways responsible for our focus and attention.
Many people avoid painting and drawing because they fear they won’t be any good, but anyone can learn with a little patience and practise. Appreciation of art is also largely down to interpretation, so while there can be room for improvement – it’s something that’s impossible to get ‘wrong’.
If you’re keen to put pencil to paper or brush to canvas, you might find our beginner’s guides to painting and drawing useful. There are also some online drawing classes that you can try for free by signing up to Rest Less Events.
15. Eat with chopsticks
Using chopsticks can be tricky if you’ve never used them before, and it involves a great deal of patience – especially when you’re really hungry.
However, after the first time, things will usually get easier, and you’ll be able to appreciate the benefits for both the mind and body.
Using chopsticks forces your brain to work to master the skill, which over time will improve your coordination. You’ll also tend to eat slower, and more mindfully. Not only is this better for your digestion, but it can also heighten your senses, as you’ll have more time to appreciate smells and flavours.
You can buy chopsticks on Amazon. If you’d like some pointers on using them, check out the short video below, which will show you how to get to grips with chopsticks. Stick at it and you’ll be a pro in no time!
16 . Watch thought-provoking movies or TV
Most of us watch films and TV shows, but how often do you watch anything that really challenges your way of thinking?
Whether we realise it or not, we pick up a lot of our information and cultural awareness from the things that we see on TV.
Documentaries, films based on true events, or those that offer a cultural experience, are all great places to start.
You might like to read our articles 14 inspiring films with a deeper message and 17 unmissable history films for some ideas. Or, head over to the Film and TV section of our website for further inspiration.
17. Learn an instrument
Learning to play an instrument isn’t only great for stimulating your mind, but it can also add a whole new dimension to your life.
When we learn to play music, we naturally become more curious about songs we hear on the radio, in films, or in the supermarket. Suddenly music has more meaning than it did before.
Whether you’d like to learn how to play the guitar, or even how to write your own songs, there are plenty of great courses out there that can teach you the essentials. We have a range of free and paid music courses on our website.
Alternatively, YouTube is a great place to watch tutorials and learn from people of all experience levels across the globe.
18. Play video games
More and more people are taking up video gaming later in life, and for good reason.
According to research, playing video games can make the regions of the brain responsible for attention and visuospatial skills (a person’s ability to recognise visual and spatial relationships between objects) more efficient.
They can also give you a chance to connect with your inner child, escape the stresses of daily life, and improve your hand-eye coordination and alertness.
So, if you needed an excuse to buy a games console, or borrow your children’s or grandchildren’s, now you have it!
19. Keep up with events around the world
The world around us is constantly changing and keeping up with global events can be a helpful way to stimulate your mind and keep it sharp.
You might naturally be drawn to news about your specific interests (such as sports, politics, or science), but it’s a good idea to delve into other news too if you really want to challenge yourself.
Perhaps you could make it your goal to focus more on news and history from a specific region in the world that you know little about, or maybe you’d be interested in reading some in-depth, personal items from people who’ve been personally affected by current events.
The world is a diverse place, with so much to learn about and explore – even from the comfort of your own living room – so it’s important to stay curious.
That being said, it’s important to control your news consumption to look after your mental health. For guidance, have a read of our article; 8 ways to manage your news consumption.
20. Set goals and work towards them
One of the most effective ways to work on keeping your mind sharp is to set goals and work towards them.
Once you master any skill, it’s important to consider what you’ll learn next, or how to develop that skill further. When we learn to perform a skill well, our brains tend to relax and are no longer as stimulated as they once were.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to try and master skills where there’s always more to learn! Some of the skills above, like learning a musical instrument or learning to paint or draw, are perfect examples of this.
To read more about the importance of self-development and get tips on how to stay focused on your goals, you might like to check out our article, Self-development – 11 skills that can improve your life.
Your brain is the most important asset you have, so it’s important to make sure that it gets enough opportunity to learn and develop.
Challenging and stimulating your brain with new activities and experiences is a great way to do this, and it can improve your happiness and general wellbeing too.
Never be afraid to learn something new or to let your curiosity lead the way, because as Henry Ford once famously said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”
Did you try out any of these tips? Or, do you have any other suggestions you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!