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Train Your Brain For Building and Maintaining Cognitive Skills

Posted by Brian Bigelow on

Train Your Brain For Building and Maintaining Cognitive Skills

Even as you age, your brain maintains the ability to learn and grow. However, this process called plasticity, does require ongoing stimulation. 

Dr. John N. Morris, director of social and health policy research at the Harvard-affiliated Institute for Aging Research says, "Eventually, your cognitive skills will wane and thinking, and memory will be more challenging, so you need to build up your reserve.” He went on to say, "Embracing a new activity that also forces you to think and learn and requires ongoing practice can be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy."

Physical And Mental Practice

Several key research studies have shown the link between physical exercise and improved cognitive function, including memory, problem solving, concentration, and attention to detail.1-4 

However, what researchers aren’t clear about is whether or not the physical exercise itself is the source of improvement or if there are other factors at play.

Things like the mental aspects and challenges of the activity, how often it is performed and the individual’s motivation and desire to improve. All of these factors may potentially play a role in the overall cognitive benefits. 

One example is tennis. There are clear cardiovascular and muscular benefits associated with tennis, but it also takes a tremendous amount of concentration, processing, learning and focus. You have to keep your eye on the ball and coordinate your movements as the ball comes your way. In addition, you can measure your expertise in your level of play and how you perform against worthy opponents. All of which motivate you to want to become a better tennis player.

Activities designed to enhance brain function don’t always have to include exercise. Clinical studies have shown that creative outlets like painting, drawing and other forms of art and creativity, music and the learning of an instrument, creative writing as well as learning a new language can all improve cognitive function.5-8 

In a 2014 review of 31 studies, researchers looked at how all of these mental activities affected older adults and their overall cognitive function. What they found was that all of them improved in several key areas of memory. Including things like recalling instructions and their speed of processing information. Their findings were published in the journal Gerontologist.9 

How To Prime Your Brain

Here are a few ways to support your new brain boosting endeavor:

Stick With One New Activity - Stay focused on developing one new skill. This way you won’t be tempted by other activities. 

  • Take a class. Enrolling in classes is a great way to commit to learning a new skill. It’s also a great way to make sure you’re doing it right. The classroom setting also makes it more interesting and helps maintain excitement. 
  • Schedule time to practice. At first don’t worry so much about how much time you practice, instead just be consistent and make sure you practice daily.  

Choose the right activity - Regardless of which new activity you choose, it should follow three important guidelines in order to maximize its brain boosting benefits, according to Dr. Morris.

It Should Be Challenging - Just like a muscle your brain grows by being stimulated and challenged. That’s why choosing something new is so beneficial. It gets your brain working in new ways. 

If you’re not looking for something new, try making your current activities more challenging. 

For example, if you are an avid golfer, focus on a specific aspect of the game and try to improve your abilities. Maybe focus on your putting for a period of time or using your wedge. "You don't have the challenge of learning something new, but rather the challenge of increasing your skill set and knowledge," says Dr. Morris.

Make It Complex - The more complex and challenging an activity the more it will stimulate your brain. In turn, your brain will respond even greater because it will force you to solve problems and be more creative. A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013 found that adults between the ages 60 to 90 who did new and complex activities like digital photography or quilting, for an average of 16 hours per week for three months scored better on working and long-term memory tests than those who did more routine activities like reading and or crossword puzzles.

Practice - The more an activity is practiced the more permanent the brain changes will be. "You can't improve memory if you don't work at it," says Dr. Morris. "The more time you devote to engaging your brain, the more it benefits."

Whichever activity you choose, it should require some level of ongoing practice, however, the goal is not to try to improve a lot in a short period of time, rather the goal is to be consistent. "It is the constant repetition of working to improve, and not the quest for mastery, that can have the greatest impact," says Dr. Morris.

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