Every day we are doing things to take care of our bodies. Good nutrition and regular exercise keep us fit and conditioned for the things we love. But what about mental fitness? To achieve overall health and wellness, it’s important not to overlook mental health.
There are simple things we can add to our daily routine that can improve cognitive power, enhance memory, and support overall mental health. Check out these 30 hacks to keep your brain in tip-top shape, for any age.
Just like the benefits of stretching your limbs, relaxing your mind will help to improve mental flexibility and agility. It
1. Get plenty of rest
A good night’s rest is the equivalent of speeding up your computer by cleaning out the RAM, suggests a new study in the Journal of Learning and Memory. Researchers think sleep may help your brain consolidate information and organize it so it’s easier to retrieve. Experts recommend at least 7 hours of sleep to experience the full benefits. If you can’t get all the Zzz’s, consider a power nap.
2. Meditate or do yoga
Our busy lives can make us so anxious that your brain simply can’t take in new information. Taking the time to center yourself not only is a tool to destress, it also clears the mind of clutter that hinders cognitive ability. A study by a University of Illinois graduate student and her colleagues found that hatha yoga boosts brain function, particularly in older adults.
3. Read a novel
Reading stories — especially those with strong narrative arcs — reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days, according to research by neuroscientist Professor Gregory S. Berns, director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy in Atlanta.
4. Doodle for your noodle
There’s a reason why students scribble in notebooks during lectures on cognitive psychology. Instead of detracting from concentration, doodling can be a tool to keep the brain stimulated, which keeps the mind engaged and improves memory capture, according to Jackie Andrade, who recently published a study on doodling in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
5. Get organized
Does your head feel as cluttered as your desk? The simple act of physically putting things where they belong organizes things in your brain, too. Dr. Cynthia R. Green’s work explores how a clean and organized environment may help boost your brainpower.
6. Floss for brain health
Your dentist would love this one: floss your teeth every day. Ok, so flossing isn’t the most ‘relaxing’ way to boost your brainpower, but the plaque on your teeth is surprisingly bad for your brain. “The plaque between teeth can cause an immune reaction that attacks arteries, which then can’t deliver vital nutrients to brain cells,” says Dr. Michael Roizen, co-author of “YOU — The Owner’s Manual: An Insider’s Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger.”
Fit body for a fit mind
Fitness boot camps are all the rage for getting full-body workouts. Well, a little invigorating activity is also good for the noggin’ and it is a great stress reliever and boosts overall mood.
7. Aerobic exercise
According to Thomas Crook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and memory researcher, “Cardiovascular health is more important than any other single factor in preserving and improving learning and memory. You’re working out your brain at the same time as your heart.” Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on mental health, too. It has been shown to help with depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. You will benefit from as little as 10 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, 15 times a week.
“You’re working out your brain at the same time as your heart.” ~ Thomas Crook, Ph.D.
8. Strength training
Strength training not only builds strong muscles and bones — it can also boost cognitive functioning. That’s because lifting weights may increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which controls the growth of nerve cells. BDNF is like fertilizer for the brain. Without it, our brains can’t take in new information or make new cells. Adding in strength-training exercises, like push-ups, sit-ups, or weight training twice a week is beneficial.
A streamy roll in the hay can boost your memory. Enough said.
Brain games and cognitive training
Well as invigorating as a trip to the gym is, there are more traditional cognitive exercises that are both fun and will make you look smart. These types of activities can help improve memory recall, inspire creative thinking, and reduce anxiety. And for people living with chronic pain, the combination of an elevated mood along with reduced blood pressure can lead to reduced inflammation and lessen physical discomfort.
Exercising your word skills might protect against memory loss, according to a group of neurology studies. Do the daily sudoku or crossword in your newspaper, or grab a book of logic puzzles. Make it social and invite a friend to play a round of Scrabble.
11. Turn off autopilot
Same thing, different day. When we don’t even have to think about what we’re doing, we’re not thinking. We need to keep our brains constantly guessing to establish new neural connections. Breaking a routine can help achieve that, even with just a slight deviation. Maybe order an espresso drink instead of your usual coffee or take a different route on the way home from work or the gym.
12. Parlez-vous Français?
Learning a second language not only makes you look smart, it makes you smarter. Language learning is much more a cognitive problem-solving activity than a linguistic activity, overall. Studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind. It could also be the inspiration for your next adventures abroad!
13. Play music
The Portland Chamber Orchestra put together a great piece that describes what happens when the brain plays a musical instrument. One quick fact from it is that music practice actually increases the number of synapses in the human brain. You don’t have to be a musician to have fun with a harmonica. No instrument? The act of listening to music is also a brain workout.
Playtime isn’t just for kids. Dr. Bowen White, physician and founding member of the National Institute for Play (yes, that’s a thing!), says that “play is essential to our health.” It can help lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health, among other benefits. It also helps improve creativity, problem-solving, and productivity.
14. Get your groove on
Now you have another reason to hit the dance floor. According to Dr. Daniel Amen, author of Magnificent Mind at Any Age, “Few activities stimulate as wide a variety of brain systems as dancing does. It requires everything from coordination and organization to planning and judgment.” All this stimulation leads to a big brain boost.
15. Hang out with friends
Everyone likes a little socializing. A study at the University of Michigan found that social interaction helps to exercise people’s minds. People reap cognitive benefits from socializing. They speculate that social interaction “exercises” cognitive processes that are measured on intellectual tasks. “It is possible,” the authors conclude, “that as people engage socially and mentally with others, they receive relatively immediate cognitive boosts.”
16. Have a sense of humor
A study at Stanford showed that in the center part of your brain, a part known as the nucleus accumbens becomes active when you laugh. The nucleus accumbens is part of a pathway of nerves in your brain and spinal cord (called a neural pathway) that scientists call a “reward circuit”. It controls the release of dopamine which stimulates the frontal lobe — important for complex mental tasks. So laughing is good!
17. Go to the arcade
Neuroscientist Lauren Sergio, of York University in Toronto, found an important difference between gamers and non-gamers in how and where the brain processes information. Skilled gamers mainly use their frontal cortex, according to Sergio’s fMRI studies. That’s an area of the brain specialized for planning, attention, and multitasking. Non-gamers, in contrast, predominately use an area called the parietal cortex, the part of the brain specializing in visual-spatial functions.
Drink up. The fluids we put in our body have properties that can further enhance the other activities we do to increase our cognitive performance. Although you may feel more confident talking about world politics after a few glasses of red wine, booze did not make this list.
Drink water. And plenty of it. Your brain is 80 percent water, and if it’s not hydrated, your neurons can’t perform properly. Drinking alcohol or caffeine in excess can lead to dehydration. And some studies have looked at the negative effects of caffeinated energy drinks on mental health.
19. Green Tea
Drinking green tea has already been linked to a boosted metabolism, increased ease of weight loss, improved heart health, reduced cancer risk and stronger immunity, just to name a few. This is largely due to the large number of anti-oxidants, catechins and other bioactive compounds that green tea has in abundance. There is no surprise that it also benefits the brain. A study by the University of Basel in Switzerland found that the reason green tea extract was able to improve brain function was because of its positive effect on brain connectivity: In other words, bioactive compounds made communication between different parts of the brain easier and more rapid. This better communication led to better brain performance, especially in areas like working memory.
I know — in number 18 we said to avoid excess caffeine, but in moderation, coffee is can boost brain power as well. Coffee is full of caffeine which is known to block adenosine — a chemical in the brain that causes feelings of drowsiness. So coffee makes your brain more alert. It also seems to improve short-term memory.
We eat to fuel our bodies. But certain foods have been found to also have positive effects on memory, improving cognitive functions, mood, and mental health.
A study led by Professor Ian Macdonald at the University of Nottingham found that consumption of a cocoa drink rich in flavanols — a key ingredient of dark chocolate — boosts blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours. Increased blood flow to these areas of the brain may help to increase performance in specific tasks and boost general alertness over a short period.
Blueberries may help keep your brain firing. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests that the fruit’s wealth of anthocyanins — the antioxidants that create the blue hue — foster neuron-to-neuron communication in the brain, which may help delay memory loss.
Research suggests quercetin, a chemical in apples, offers powerful neuroprotection, meaning it arms brain cells against damage from free radicals that can cause cognitive decline. Most of the quercetin is in the apple skin, so keep the peel for extra brainpower.
The polyphenols in grape leaves that produce wine and grape juice help brain cells communicate, so they may improve memory and learning skills.
25. Chicken & Eggs
Whichever came first, both are a great source of choline, which can help improve cognitive performance, and has a specially strong effect on memory.
Believe it or not, studies show that a little bit of sugar will improve alertness and memory in the short term. Beware, this is a short-term fix and too much sugar will make you crash.
This fish is flush in omega-3s, B vitamins, and selenium. Elizabeth Somer, author of 10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman’s Diet says that people who eat lots of omega-3s maintain brain capacity, concentration, and alertness much better.
Go nuts! These snacks are full of all kinds are full of magnesium, a mineral linked to improvements in short- and long-term memory. According to research from MIT and Tsinghua University in Beijing, magnesium seems to promote new connections between brain cells.
29. Anything Mediterranean diet
With age, the brain starts to develop damage that can lead to difficulty with thinking and memory, but research shows that people who eat a Mediterranean diet are 36 percent less likely to have such damage.
Future of brain-boosting science
Some say the future is here. Nootropics are supplements or other substances that improve cognitive function. They are brain supplements. Check out some of the most powerful cognitive enhancers in my blog on nootropics.
Bonus: Power of Positive Thinking
31. Think Positive
Negative thinking can negatively affect your ability to perceive, remember, and reinforce existing or create new neural connections. On the flipside, positive thinking can actually improve all those things. There are many upsides to a positive outlook. Teresa Aubele, Ph.D., coauthor of Train Your Brain to Get Happy, writes that “happy people are more creative, solve problems faster, and tend to be more mentally alert.”
Final thoughts: Mental health, physical wellness, and you
When we talk about being healthy, it’s not just about how much you weigh or your blood pressure. Sure, those are important metrics to track, But thinking about the whole person it is important to consider how our mindset and daily lifestyle choices shape not only our bodies but also our minds. It’s all about feeling good.
No matter where you happen to be on your own personal journeys to health and wellness, try any one (or ten, twenty!) of these ideas and feel better today!