Exercise Your Brain Like You Exercise Your Body and Other Advice on How to Stay Mentally Sharp

Gas tankWe lift weights, jog, swim, participate in marathons and triathlons — all kinds of ways to exercise our bodies and keep them strong and healthy. But what do we do to keep our brains physically fit? The daily crossword puzzle? It’s not enough. Doing the same type of puzzle every day is like going to the gym and only doing pushups, says Portland neurologist Dr. Eric Dinnerstein. Instead, he wants to encourage us to try something new. “Learning something new is very healthy for the brain at any age and creates new pathways,” he says. “The idea is to utilize a variety of activities and challenges. When I talk about learning something, I’m talking about some ability, learning to dance, to swim, to play a new instrument. Learn a new language or read a book in a genre you’re not familiar with. Basically, this newness is cognitively stimulating.”

MENTAL STIMULATION is just one way to keep your brain sharp. Another is social stimulation. A SOCIAL LIFE is good for your brain. Humans are social creatures. Even if you are introverted you need social contact. “Scientific studies show we will degenerate faster if we are left idle and alone,” says Dr. Dinnerstein. “We are social animals and that stimulates the mind. When we meet people we try to be at our best – we force ourselves. When we are alone, we degenerate.”

So, get out there and party, or at least have lunch with some friends.

A third way to work the brain is to get physical. Studies show that PHYSICAL EXERCISE speeds up how we process information. It also helps get more oxygen to the brain and stimulates growth factors. Dr. Dinnerstein recommends 30 minutes of some kind of aerobic activity, five times a week.

What about brain food? Are there certain things we can eat to boost brain power? I did some quick research and here’s what I found:

BRAIN BOOSTING FOODS

Blueberries - animal studies showed that a diet rich in blueberries significantly improved the learning capacity of aging rats. OK … that’s promising. A study study published in the Annals of Neurology found that a diet high in blueberries and strawberries was linked to a “slower mental decline in areas like memory and focus.”

Salmon and sardines - rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which has been linked to a lower risk of dementia, improved focus and memory.

Avacados - a monounsaturated fat, which contributes to healthy blood flow, which our brains need so they’ll get plenty of oxygen.

Olive oil - also a monounsaturated fat.

Dark chocolate - it has powerful antioxidant properties and contains several natural stimulants that enhance focus and concentration. I confess I prefer milk chocolate.

Water - studies have shown that if you become dehydrated, it can affect your cognitive fundtion. Also, your brain tissue shrinks if you become dehydrated.

Beets - a good source of naturally-occurring nitrates, which contribute to a healthy blood flow to the brain. Here’s to Dwight Schrute and the family beet farm!

Turmeric - animal studies suggest that the active chemical in turmeric, curcumin, can enhance the birth of new brain cells. There are several ongoing studies that are looking at turmeric (it’s a spice) and its possible effect on the brain.

USE IT OR LOSE IT

There are lots of myths and bright ideas on the subject of brain fitness. Dr. Dinnerstein says he tries his best to present patients with scientific evidence, but even then, things change and the advice we get today may not be good tomorrow.

Without a brain, we would be nothing. It controls what we do and who we are, and the more we use it, the better it should work. Have you heard about the research that was done on London taxi drivers? They have very large hippocampi — that’s the part of the brain associated with spatial mapping and navigation — which apparently helped them store a detailed map of the city in their brains.

If you think a lot, your brain will feel tired. Brain scans have shown that thinking uses up a lot of energy. I’ve been thinking a lot and now I’m tired. Like the rest of our bodies, our brains need a GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP, too. So, good night. My brain and I will see you in the morning!

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane Atwood was the health reporter on News Center 6. She's now a regular guest on the Morning Report. Before she became a health reporter, Diane was a radiation therapist/dosimetrist at Maine Medical Center. In 2000, she left the world of reporting to manage marketing and public relations for Mercy Hospital. In 2011, she decided to pursue a longtime dream of being a freelance writer and launched her award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.