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Neurobic tips: How to exercise your brain

Lisa Armstrong is the mother of two grown daughters, a yoga practitioner, an educator and a long-time freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness, and historical topics that affect humanity's personal and collective well-being.

How to exercise your brain

Boost your memory and other skills with easy exercises designed to increase your brain power.
Woman touching temples

Maintaining your brain is just as important as your overall heath. In the same way that you can exercise your body, you can also exercise your brain, with positive results, and fight off the effects of mental aging.

Neurobics is the science of brain exercise. Its primary goal is to help you keep your memory, along with the ability to learn new information. The term "neurobics" was coined by Lawrence Katz, Ph.D and Manning Rubin to describe these brain exercises and it includes many practices that help the brain stay fit.

"Just like aerobic exercises emphasize different muscle groups to enhance coordination and flexibility, neurobic exercises involve activating many different brain areas to increase the range of mental motion," says Katz. "They result in a mind that's fit to meet various challenges — whether it's remembering a name, mastering a computer program, or staying creative in your work."

Katz, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and co-author Rubin, wrote the book Keeping Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness. "The basic idea behind brain exercises is to use your brain's natural desire to form associations, to do things in different ways that cause it to form new associations. The capacity of the brain to form new associations is essentially unlimited," Katz said.

Neurobics requires you to do some things you may not have been doing on a regular basis...or experiencing something new involving your five senses on a daily basis.

In order to be effective, a neurobic exercise should do one of the following:

  1. Make you use one of your senses in a new way — by dulling the sense you normally use, you force other senses to get involved. Eat a meal in silence, for example, or listen to Mozart while inhaling lavender.
  2. Engage your emotions. Make your brain sit up and take notice! Step outside the box and do something unusual or surprising.
  3. Break a routine — make it unexpected.

With neurobics, you involve all five senses and not just use the dominant ones of vision and hearing. In fact, research studies have shown that using multiple senses at the same time is actually the best learning process as it improves both comprehension and retention of learning.

"What your brain does most is form associations between different senses — that's what your brain is really good at; that's what it is designed to do," Katz said.

And your "sixth sense" — your emotions — also enter into how likely you are to remember something. So interactions with people are an important factor. It is equally important to create opportunities to socialize, continue your learning and to be involved with the world.

When you exercise your brain, you release a natural growth hormone called neurotrophins, which enhances your brain's fitness levels. Each time you open a new circuit, or a neural pathway, you do what amounts to mental sit-ups, but without the exertion.

Here are some easy neurobic exercises to start with:

  • Eat outside — change where or with whom you eat lunch. If the weather permits, eating outside instead of inside will automatically increase your sensory stimulation.
  • Shop at a new store — this could be a new supermarket or a completely different type of shop that you would seldom visit.
  • Read a new magazine — we all have preferences in reading in our leisure time, but try delving into a completely unique magazine This is especially fun and easy to do at your local library, where you can browse and read a publication completely different from your usual reading fare.
  • Take up a new leisure activity — if you're a die-hard runner, cyclist or golfer, try another version of your recreation. Attend a yoga class, go horseback riding or try silk aerobics (think Cirque du Soleil)! Or try something that is almost guaranteed to use all five senses — gardening. You can enjoy the great outdoors, play in the dirt, inhale the fragrance of fresh flowers or the aroma of sun-ripened tomatoes and learn new (and useful) skills.
  • Use your feet — from wiggling your toes before you get out of bed in the morning, to selecting the shoes you'll wear that day, your feet have receptors that connect to and stimulate the brain. Try it!

More on brain health

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Can food make you smarter?
Drink your way to a better brain

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