Sure, there’s not much you can do to stop time. You can however, improve the quality of your life within the time you have — and that includes keeping your mind sharp and vibrant.
Just like working out your muscles helps your musculoskeletal system stay strong, any activity that involves practice causes the brain to transmit signals in a specific pattern over and over again, allowing for connections between neurons to strengthen. That means your brain gets stronger, too.
But it’s not just mental exercises that can strengthen your noggin. From eating the right foods to practicing “deep listening,” here are my favorite simple ways to keep your brain sharp and vibrant.
1. Practice meditation to decrease stress.
Studies shows that chronic stress can damage the brain. So you can help protect and strengthen your brain by engaging in activities or lifestyle habits that decrease the firing of your stress response.
2. Take up cognitive training exercises.
The mind stays sharp when the plasticity of the brain is maintained. Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to constantly change over the course of a person’s lifetime. And this plasticity can be maintained — and better yet, improved — by engaging in cognitive training exercises, which challenge your intellectual capacity.
You can take up playing chess, learning a new language, or juggling. And playing boardgames can stimulate your thinking, as well as your hand-eye coordination. You can even do something simple like learn a new direction to drive to work, type or scroll with the opposite hand, or combine your senses by eating while listening to music with your eyes closed.
3. Exercise your body — for your brain.
Research shows that physical exercise enhances cognitive function. One reason might be because it increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that improves learning, memory and higher thinking by stimulating growth of new neurons and helping existing neurons stay alive.
Walk outdoors where the terrain isn’t predictable, so that you’re perfecting your balance and working your foot-eye coordination at the same time. Yoga or tai chi also enable you to practice coordination, flow of movement, balance and the engagement of different muscle groups. And don’t forget to fit in some aerobic exercise as well, getting your heart rate up for at least 15 minutes a few times a week.
4. Practice deep listening.
Any time you’re engaged in activities that require communication, your neurons need to fire and synapses need to function. Injury to the brain and even too much stress can challenge this communication highway and make speaking, listening, understanding cues and integrating information more difficult.
Just like a meditation practice can lower the activation of the stress response and therefore quiet the mind, you want to get into the practice of regularly quieting the mind so that the neurons can do their job of communicating.
I call this practice “deep listening,” where you allow yourself to take a pause and a deep breath. This provides you with the space you need to fully hear words and take in the nuances. The tenants of this practice are:
- Do not rush when communicating. Wait, take a pause.
- Breathe. Inhale deeply and exhale completely, allowing the mind to quiet.
- Listen with your heart. Notice how words make you feel. Try to engage all of your senses.
- Write first. If you feel emotionally charged, you may want to jot down what you’re feeling to help gain clarity before you speak out.
- Find a safe place to rant. You can choose a friend, therapist or counselor whom you know you can safely speak to without worrying that you might be judged. You will find that when you release whatever is pent up, you can more easily listen and communicate.
5. Ditch the sugar.
A diet high in sugar can be harmful to the brain, inducing inflammation, oxidative stress and poor insulin regulation.
Your goal, therefore, is to follow a diet that helps you improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation. This means eating fish, some meat, a lot of vegetables, some nuts and seeds, some fruit and very little grains.
6. Nourish your brain with antioxidants.
Your brain benefits not only from a low sugar intake, but also from getting more antioxidants, which can help improve your memory, learning and overall cognitive performance.
Antioxidant-rich foods include berries (especially blueberries), fruits and vegetables like carrots, spinach and red grapes, and drinks like green tea, red wine, and coffee, as well as dark chocolate (in moderation, of course).
7. Sleep on it.
We’ve all had that moment when we’re sleep-deprived and can’t remember where we put the keys or what we went into the kitchen to get. You can’t fully operate when you’re sleep-deprived — and this includes your cognitive skills, memory and ability to think clearly or communicate.
If you don’t feel well-rested, see if you need more hours of sleep or if it’s a question of improving the quality of sleep. Consider getting a Fitbit or other gadget that monitors how restfully you’re sleeping, or have a sleep study done by your doctor. You may find that you simply have to wake up too early to get the right amount of hours in. If this is the case, consider taking naps, which can help you catch up on those zzz’s.