Why Is Brain Fitness So Important?
It’s obvious that our bodies need exercise to stay happy and healthy—especially as we age. And like with our bodies, our brains can lose some of their pep as we get older. In some cases, however, that brain deterioration becomes a disorder known as dementia—and its most widespread form is Alzheimer’s disease. As the nerve cells in the brain die, people with dementia slowly lose the ability to think and remember, along with the ability to care for themselves.
But losing cognitive function doesn’t have to be a normal part of aging. The key to healthy aging is in keeping your brain fit and active. While studies indicate that having a parent or a sibling with the disease can increase your chances of developing dementia, it’s not the only factor. Here are five tips that can help keep your brain in top form.
1. Get sweaty
If you needed one more reason to hit the gym, this is it: keeping your body fit is the single most effective way to keep your brain spry for the long-haul. “Whatever is good for your heart is good for your brain, too,” explains Ken Rockwood, MD, a professor of geriatric medicine and the Kathryn Allen Weldon, professor of Alzheimer’s research at Dalhousie University in Halifax. According to Dr. Rockwood, exercise “trumps by a large margin” every other strategy for brain fitness.
Jack Diamond, MD, former scientific director of the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, agrees. “The beauty of regular exercise is that it not only reduces your chances of developing Alzheimer’s, but it can actually slow it down if you already have it,” he says. Dr. Rockwood recommends getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, five days a week. “You need to be huffing and puffing,” he explains. “It’s important to get the heart rate up.”
2. Add some weight to your workout
What’s good for the body is great for the brain. Adding a simple weight routine your workout will not only tone your muscles, but it will keep your thinking cap strong, too. Dr. Rockwood says no matter what your fitness level, adding resistance training to your workout twice a week can make a difference for long-term brain health. He recommends alternating arm and leg exercises—things like bicep curls with hand weights, and leg lifts (which can be done while seated) with ankle weights—for the most benefit.
3. Increase your knowledge
Studies indicate that the more time you spend in school, the better able you will be to keep dementia at bay. “It could be that formal education lays down the foundation for a good brain for the rest of your life,” explains Dr. Rockwood, “or that educated people naturally seek out novel, intellectual stimuli.” Ultimately, learning is the most fundamental brain workout—and the more you do it, the more you’ll benefit. “The neurochemicals associated with laying down a new memory are also protective for your old memories,” says Dr. Rockwood.
4. Try something new
If you’ve ever wanted to pick up the violin or learn Spanish, now is the time to do it. Learning something brand new—particularly an instrument or a language—after the age of 25 is a great way to keep the brain lively, and the harder you find it, the better! “The fact that it is effortful is good for the brain,” explains Dr. Rockwood. Think about learning to salsa dance: you may have to do the basic steps hundreds of times, but at some point, you’ll be able to stop counting and start dancing—that’s when you know your brain has got it down pat. Until then, your brain is busily building all sorts of important new connections. Then, when you’ve mastered the skill, it’s time to take up something new.
5. Play a brain-boosting game
Whether it’s a crossword puzzle or a game of Sudoku, doing challenging puzzles is a way of activating the brain—and a surefire way to help keep it sharp. “It is believed that games help you make more connections in the brain,” explains Dr. Diamond, “and that may increase the levels of growth factors.” Ultimately, he says, games are a great way to work your mind because they “cause you to think and not to vegetate.”
But, warns Rockwood, it’s important to keep challenging yourself: once a particular game gets too easy, your brain isn’t benefiting anymore. “Learning how to play bridge is beneficial,” he explains, “but playing your 10,000th game? Not so much.”