Exercising the mind is just as important as exercising the body if you want to get the most from life. The mind is often thought of as a muscle, meaning that the more you challenge it, the stronger it will become. 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 then we need to use them. Research also shows that people who do more mentally stimulating activities have better critical thinking skills later in life.
Whilst every brain will change with age, cognitive impairment doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of getting older. Here are 20 different ways that you can help to 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 to suit everyone! There are a whole host of mental benefits that come with puzzle-solving including enhancing your memory function, increasing your IQ score and improving your visual and spatial reasoning skills (the skills that we need to be able to perceive, analyse and understand visual information in the world around us).
If you’re looking for a good place to start puzzling or brain gaming, then it’s worth downloading the Luminosity app, which takes scientifically-validated tasks and turns them into fun games that you can play for a few minutes each day. Upon completing the games you’ll receive actionable feedback and rich insights into your cognitive abilities. You can access some Luminosity games with a free account, or you can upgrade to a premium subscription for access to all games and progress monitoring tools.
2. Use your non-dominant hand to perform tasks
If you’re right handed then consider challenging yourself to perform tasks like eating or writing using your left hand, and vice versa. Using your non-dominant hand is a chance for you to confuse your brain and encourage it to engage in a whole new way.
By using your left hand, when your dominant hand is your right, you are forcing your brain out of auto-pilot mode by making it think more about your movements. Using your non-dominant hand can feel incredibly awkward and tiring to start with, but this is actually a positive thing. Our brains will be working hard to develop new learning pathways to allow us to become more efficient at using our non-dominant hand to perform tasks.
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 fall into a comfort zone with our food. Perhaps you have the same chicken wrap everyday for lunch, or you find yourself choosing from the same three dinner options every night out of convenience. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with sticking to foods that you know, 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, then consider investing in some cookery books or browsing recipes online. It can be fun to have themed cooking nights to help you explore different cuisines. For example Tuesday could be Mexican cooking night, Friday could be your chance to cook Thai food, and on Sunday afternoons you could try different baking recipes. Increasing the variety in 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 and try out new recipes.
Often when we start exploring and experimenting with different foods, we also learn more about food in general (nutritional breakdown, calories etc), and we start making healthier choices as a result. 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 that we do all the time. For this reason, it’s a good idea to change up your routine from time to time to keep your brain on it’s toes. This is also the perfect opportunity to try something new. For example, if you usually walk, run or cycle the same route, then try a completely different way next time. Or consider slotting an entirely new activity into your daily routine – like 10 minutes of meditation first thing in the morning. It’s these changes in activity that take our minds off cruise control and put them back into gear, because they increase brain activity in several different areas.
5. Learn to knit
Physical benefits of knitting include helping to prevent arthritis and tendinitis, but knitting also has plenty to offer your mind too. When you knit, you use your whole brain. This includes the frontal lobe, which is responsible for planning, attention and processing; the occipital lobe, which processes visual information; the parietal lobe, which deals with spatial navigation and sensory information; the temporal lobe, which stores memories and interprets language and meaning, and the cerebellum, which coordinates timing of movement.
With your brain working in all areas, knitting has to be a top activity for helping to keep your mind sharp. It is often used to help people with diseases like Parkinson’s and Altzheimer’s improve their motor function.
If you’ve never tried knitting before but you’d like to give it a go, then have a read of our beginner’s guide to knitting.
6. Challenge yourself to read differently
If you would usually read in your head, then consider reading out loud or listening to an audio book instead. Reading in a way that you wouldn’t usually do so, encourages your brain to use different circuits. You could also try reading different genres of books, or joining a book club, where you will be exposed to different interpretations of books that challenge your own. If you need some literary inspiration, then you can engage with other avid book readers in the Rest Less book club, here.
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 you time to step away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and actively engage your mind and body as you focus on performing slow, controlled and precise body movements. In doing this, we are able to better focus on the daily practises that we often take for granted; such as breathing, grounding, balance and motion. Training your mind to focus so intently on every body movement is something that takes practice; offering your mind a great workout in the process. Research has linked both Tai Chi and yoga to improved brain health.
You can try your first Tai Chi class using the video below. Or, you can find out more about how to get started with yoga, in our beginner’s guide.
Faster-paced classes that involve a lot of hand-eye coordination
Higher intensity classes like dance or boxing-inspired workouts are also a great way to improve your brain function and boost your memory whilst working on your strength, balance and cardiovascular fitness. When you follow routines at a fast pace, your brain must work quickly to first process each movement that you see, and then perform it. Doing this allows you to work on your hand-eye coordination, which strengthens the quality of the neuromuscular communication in the brain. This will help to improve the accuracy and speed of which you are able to perform tasks and help with developing strength and balance. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, then have a go at this Zumba Gold workout, or this boxing-inspired workout from Billy Blanks.
8. Do your 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 – especially now that they are installed in every smartphone. However, if you’re looking to keep your mind sharp, then it can be helpful to swap your calculator for a pen and paper, or just your naked brain if you fancy having a go at some mental arithmetic! It can feel like a slow and time-consuming process at first, but you might be surprised how quick your maths skills become with a little practice.
9. Play card games
Every card game is different, but they all require you make decisions based on what is put in front of you at the time. Playing cards is great for developing your problem-solving skills and helping you think on your feet. It is also thought to help improve both your short and long-term memory. Have a look at this handy list of one-player card games or these games for 2+ players. Play your cards right and you could keep your mind sharp for a long time to come!
10. Learn a new language
Scientists believe that learning a new language at any stage in life could help to improve your brain function. One suggested reason for this is that your brain has to work harder to learn how to switch back and forth between two different languages. Learning a language can also open you up to a plerotha of new experiences – such as work and travel opportunities – all of which can stimulate and challenge your mind further.
If you’re keen to learn a new language, but the idea overwhelms you, then consider downloading the Duolingo app, where you can start learning a new language in bitesize chunks for just a few minutes a day. Alternatively, if you’d prefer a more structured, in depth approach where you can work at your own pace, then you could consider taking a distance learning course. We have a selection of free and paid for courses on site, here.
Or to find out more about how you could benefit from learning a new language, check out our article here.
11. Practice 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 has to be learnt and 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 in all the right ways.
To find out more about how you can practice mindfulness, take a look at our articles:
12. Make diverse social connections
When we spend time with others, we open ourselves up to new ideas and inspiration. However, our brain benefits most when we connect with people who are different from ourselves – perhaps they have a different career, culture or interests. We can learn far more from people that don’t share all the same ideas as us, than from people who do, which lends way 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, it doesn’t mean that you won’t get along. As the saying goes, opposites attract!
13. Go back to basics, and 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 about things in far less depth than we usually would. For example, when we use GPS navigation to drive somewhere, we are 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 where people memorised one another’s phone numbers are now also a distant memory, because our smartphones hold every number we could ever need.
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 really making a conscious effort to remember your route, or trying to learn a couple of phone numbers that you know you will 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 licenced cabbies, they must memorize 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks. And 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).
14. Learn to paint or draw
If you want to increase your concentration skills, reduce anxiety and improve your memory, then why not learn to paint or draw? As well as being a creative outlet, research also shows that drawing and painting can strengthen the neural pathways responsible for our focus and attention. Many people avoid artistic skills like these due to fear that they simply won’t be any good at it, but anyone can learn to paint or draw with a little patience and practice. 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”.
15. Eat with chopsticks
Using chopsticks can be tricky to start with, and involve a great deal of patience – especially when you’re really hungry. However, after the first time you spend 45 minutes eating your bowl of mushroom rice, things will usually get easier, and you will be able to appreciate the benefits for both mind and body.
Using chopsticks forces your brain to work harder to master the skill, which will improve your coordination over time. You will also tend to eat slower, and more mindfully – which is better for your digestion and will give you a heightened sensory experience, as you’ll have more time to appreciate smells and flavours.
You can buy chopsticks for a reasonable price in your local shops, or even online with someone like Amazon. If you want some pointers on using them, then have a look at 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, understanding and cultural awareness from the things that we watch on TV. Documentaries, films based on true events, or those that offer a cultural experience, are all great places to start. Or you could try this list of 52 movies that are so clever they’ll have you thinking for days.
17. Learn an instrument
18. Play video games
More and more people across the globe are taking up video gaming later in life; and for good reason. According to research, playing video games can make the regions in 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 ever needed an excuse to buy a games console, or borrow your children’s or grandchildren’s, then now you have it!
19. Keep up with events around the world
The world around us is constantly changing and it’s rare for anything to stay the same for too long. But 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 very little about, or maybe you’d be interested in reading some in-depth, personal items from people who have been personally affected by current events. The world is a diverse and fascinating 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 about it.
20. Stay out of your comfort zone
One of the most effective ways to work on keeping your mind sharp, is to actively avoid slipping into a comfort zone. Comfort zones may feel safe and reassuring but once you’re securely inside, your personal and/or professional growth grinds to halt. It becomes difficult to keep your mind active and engaged when you’re repeating the same safe actions over and over. This is why it’s important to have goals that you want to achieve at any stage of life – so that you can continue learning, developing and moving forward. A helpful way to identify and remind yourself of your goals is to create a vision board. Check out our handy guide that will show you how.
Once you master any skill, it’s important to consider how you can move on to the next skill, or 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 is 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.
Your brain is the most important asset you have, so it’s important to make sure that it gets enough opportunity to stretch its legs! And while challenging and stimulating your brain with new activities and experiences is an effective way to do this, this is also a great way to look after your happiness and general wellbeing too. Never be afraid to learn something new or to let your curiosity lead the way in life, 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.”