The saying goes, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but if we’re honest, we know how easy it can be to do just that, especially if we carry smartphones with us everywhere we go. While not all screen time is negative — after all, most of us use computer technology for work and to keep in touch with family and friends — there is a good deal of research out there demonstrating that smartphones, in particular, are rewiring our brains.
Our phones aren’t the only culprits in the declining health of our minds. Sedentary lifestyles and aging are equally detrimental to brainpower. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are on the rise in our nation. At this time, there is no cure, but studies suggest that making a conscious decision to exercise and protect your brain may guard against or delay dementia in old age.
So how can we fortify our minds now and set ourselves up for better brain health in the long term? Crossing your fingers and hoping for the best is not a strategy, but it can be hard to know where to begin. After all, the brain isn’t like a muscle you can train…or is it?
Believe it or not, mental health, just like physical health, can be increased with use and challenge. What’s more, your physical health can directly impact your mental health! That’s a two-for-one deal that could change every aspect of life for the better.
Exercising your mind is easier than you might think. The investment is relatively small, but the potential dividends are great. Here are a few simple ways you can challenge and sharpen yourself mentally:
- Physical activity: as we mentioned above, some studies show that exercise can make you smarter and even protect your brain from shrinking as you age. There are some studies that suggest physical activity can also help your body form new brain cells.
- Limit screen time: This one seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many of us don’t do it. Putting your phone down can positively impact your social engagement, attention span, and your sleep, all of which support brain health. It could also force you to problem-solve the old-fashioned way, such as when you are figuring out the tip at a restaurant, navigating to a destination, or remembering something you’ve forgotten.
- Change it up: do something routine in an out-of-the-ordinary way, such as taking a new route to work, writing or eating with your non-dominant hand, looking at things upside-down (such as a book, a clock, or your watch), do a daily task with your eyes closed so your other senses compensate (make sure it’s something you can do safely: showering, eating lunch, stretching, etc.). All of these can increase brain activity, forcing your brain to take new paths to perform tasks.
- Learn something new: take up a hobby like knitting, a foreign language, a musical instrument, or use chopsticks instead of your usual utensils. Read a book that requires your full attention to understand (as opposed to web-based content, which is geared toward short attention spans). Try drawing a map of your town from memory, with roads and landmarks, or (if you know them) recite family birthdays from memory. These types of challenging and complex activities engage a variety of areas of your brain.
- Memorize: try committing something new to memory, like a poem, song, or scripture. This boosts chemicals that help build brain cells and can actually increase your memory.
- Read aloud: take turns reading sections of a book with your child or another loved one, or listen to an audio book. Hearing words engages a different part of your brain than when you read them.
These are just a few ideas for how you can sharpen yourself mentally, setting you up for better brain health in the long run.
Get creative! If you can think of a way to challenge your mind that isn’t listed above, go for it. The goal is to make yourself think, and there are unlimited ways you can do that.
Why not try one of these ideas today? Invite your spouse or kids to join you so your home becomes a place where brains are engaged in active, rather than passive processing of information. You won’t regret it!