Activities that are new and complex are good brain exercise. Get real improvements in memory, focus, mood & more with these evidence-based brain exercises.
Table of Contents
It’s common knowledge that to keep your body fit, you need to get regular and varied physical exercise that includes aerobic, strength, flexibility, and balance exercises. (1)
But if you want to keep mentally fit, you may be unsure how about ways to exercise your brain.
Only certain kinds of activities qualify as genuine brain exercise, and many that are commonly promoted as such don’t live up to their hype.
Whether you seek to achieve mental performance or fend off mental decline, here are the most effective ways to “work out” your brain.
What Makes an Activity a Brain Exercise?
Most of us live our lives as a series of fixed routines.
And there are many good reasons for this.
It limits brain-draining decision making.
It lets us perform complex tasks like driving a car with less mental effort.
Routines are run by our subconscious and require very little brain energy.
And consequently, routines provide the brain with very little stimulation.
Just as your body gets soft and lethargic from lack of physical activity, your brain gets sluggish and slow from too much routine.
Proactively shaking up your daily routines is key to a healthier, sharper mind.
The experts agree that for an activity to stimulate your brain enough to exercise it, it must meet two criteria.
The activity must be both novel and complex.
Benefits You Can Expect from Brain Exercise
Giving your brain the proper stimulation will help you be your mental best now and protect you against future cognitive decline. (2)
- less stress
- better memory
- more positive mood
- increased focus and concentration
- boost in motivation and productivity
- enhanced fluid intelligence, creativity, and mental flexibility
- faster thinking and reaction time
- greater self-confidence
- sharper vision and hearing
The Benefits of Neurobic Brain Exercises
Dr. Lawrence Katz is an internationally recognized neurobiologist who has been a pioneer in neuron regeneration research.
He wrote Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness back in 1998 when few people were talking about brain fitness. (The link is an updated version of the book released in 2018.)
In his book, he coins the phrase “neurobics” to describe brain exercises that enhance brain performance by using all five senses in new and novel ways.
He explains that mental decline is not usually from loss of brain cells, but occurs from loss of communication between brain cells.
This occurs due to the decreasing number and complexity of dendrites, the branches on nerve cells. (7)
He found that by doing the right kind of mental exercise, we can grow new dendritic connections.
Katz points out that most brain exercises rely mainly on sight.
He believes that the key to fully exercising your brain is to engage all the senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell — in non-routine ways.
He contends that any activity can be turned into a good brain exercise provided it is new, fun, and challenging.
He lists 83 brain exercises in his book.
Some of them are a little kooky, like choosing the clothes you’ll wear for the day with your eyes closed.
Of all his neurobic exercises, here are some of my favorites that you can do anywhere, anytime.
1. Switch Hands
If you are right-handed, try using your left hand to do things like brushing your teeth, eating, and using your computer mouse.
Using your non-dominant hand results in increased brain activity.
This can be very hard at first which is why it gives your brain a good workout.
2. Eat with Chopsticks
This will force you to eat mindfully which is good for your brain, digestion, and calorie consumption.
(If you’re already good at this, try using chopsticks with your non-dominant hand instead.)
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3. Do Chores with Your Eyes Closed
When taking a shower, washing your hair, or sorting laundry, try doing it with your eyes closed.
This will force your brain to use new neural pathways.
Obviously, don’t do anything with your eyes closed that could put you or others in danger.
4. Do Things Upside Down or Backwards
No worries, you don’t have to stand on your head for this one.
Stimulate your brain by looking at things upside down.
An easy one to start with is wearing your watch upside down.
This forces your brain to really think every time you glance at your watch.
You can also hang clocks or calendars upside down.
When you get used to that, you can graduate to using your phone, or whatever else you can imagine, upside down.
Or you can channel your inner Leonardo da Vinci and try mastering the art of writing backwards, known as mirror writing. (8)
5. Read Books Aloud
Take turns reading and listening to a book with your significant other, a friend, or a child.
If that’s not feasible, alternate reading with listening to audiobooks.
This engages the imagination in a different way.
One of the earliest demonstrations of brain imaging clearly showed three distinct brain regions lighting up when the same word was read, spoken, or heard.
6. Take New Routes
On a routine commute, your brain is on autopilot and gets very little stimulation.
But taking an unfamiliar route activates the cortex and hippocampus. (9)
It has been said that Bill Gates would drive a different route on the way home from work each day to stimulate his brain, and look where that got him!
You can also take new routes when walking, biking, or riding public transportation.
7. Simultaneously Use All Your Senses
Try activities that simultaneously engage all your senses.
Travel, camping, and gardening are high on Dr. Katz’s list of activities that utilize all your senses in new ways.
One of his favorite examples is shopping at a farmer’s market where you can look, touch, sniff, and taste the produce.
Being sociable and talking with the farmer who grew your food provides additional brain stimulation.
Brain Exercises That Increase Intelligence
In 2008, a groundbreaking study proved for the first time that overall intelligence could be improved.
This was huge news that changed the way science regarded intelligence. (10)
Several important findings resulted from this study:
- Intelligence is fluid and can be increased with the right stimulus.
- The gains are dependent on the amount of training, i.e. the more you train, the more you gain.
- Anyone can increase their cognitive abilities, no matter their starting point.
- Cognitive enhancement made in one area could improve totally unrelated skills.
Here are some of the most significant ways to stimulate your cognitive potential: (11)
8. Try New Things
Do things you’ve never done before.
Travel somewhere you’ve never been.
Check out an unfamiliar ethnic cuisine.
Try a hobby that is totally out of character for you.
If you are a couch potato, sign up for a dance class.
If you are athletic, try needlepoint.
Novel experiences trigger the release of dopamine, the “motivation” neurotransmitter, and stimulate the creation of new neurons.
9. Challenge Yourself with Mastery
Learning something new stimulates brain activity.
But as soon as you master it, the mental benefit stops because your brain becomes more efficient at the activity.
The only way to continue to stimulate your brain is to stay out of your comfort zone.
So once you master something, challenge yourself with the next level of difficulty or learn a related skill.
For this reason, pursuits like learning a language, playing a musical instrument, or mastering chess are ideal brain exercises because there is always more to learn.
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10. Turn Off Technology
An obvious way to do things the hard way is to stop relying on technology.
Use your brain instead of your smartphone for basic mental skills like spelling and math.
Impress your friends by memorizing their phone numbers (gasp!).
Turn off the GPS and learn to read a map and use your innate sense of direction to find your way around instead. (12)
London cab drivers give their brains a tremendous workout by building a map of London in their heads.
They must memorize 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks to get their license.
Research confirms that the typical London cabbie has a significantly larger-than-average hippocampus, the part of the brain considered the memory center. (13)
11. Make Diverse Social Connections
Any time you connect with others, you expose yourself to new ideas and other ways of thinking about things.
But you can get the most brain benefits from spending time with people obviously different from yourself.
Intentionally seek out others who have different interests or careers, or are from different social or cultural environments.
This opens you up to new perspectives and ideas which will stimulate your mental growth.
The Surprising Best Brain Exercises of All
The last four ways to stimulate your mind won’t feel like a mental workout, but may be the best brain exercises of all.
These are core activities that should become a regular part of your life if you want to achieve peak mental performance.
12. Practice Meditation
It’s estimated that over 21 million Americans meditate. (14)
Major corporations like Google, General Mills, Target, Apple, Nike, Procter & Gamble, and AOL offer structured meditation programs for executives and encourage employees at all levels to participate. (18)
The US military finds meditation helps troops deal with stress, improves their cognitive resilience, and increases their ability to focus. (19)
But is meditation really exercising your mind?
Here’s why meditation makes it onto our list of top brain exercises.
Of all mental exercises, meditation may be the most challenging and therefore the best.
Our brains are non-stop thinking machines that pour out upwards of 70,000 thoughts daily. (20)
And 90% of these thoughts are the same thoughts day in, day out. (21)
Training your mind to be quiet can be hard work!
Meditation works so much like exercise, it’s been called “pushups for the brain.” (22)
Over 1,000 published studies have demonstrated the health benefits of meditation. (23)
The mental benefits of meditation include stress reduction, improved memory, learning ability and mood, increased focus and attention, and even reversal of brain atrophy.
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13. Get Physical Exercise
No discussion on brain exercise would be complete without emphasizing the importance of physical exercise for the brain.
Physical exercise might just be the most important thing you can do to keep your brain in good shape.
It may be even more important than using your brain to think! (24)
Physical exercise provides brain benefits via a variety of mechanisms:
- It improves circulation to the brain to deliver more oxygen and nutrients, and remove metabolic waste more efficiently.
- It increases the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. (25, 26)
- Exercise turns on the gene that sends a signal to create more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates new brain cell formation. (27)
- Even as little as one 30-minute exercise session can improve brain plasticity, your brain’s ability to keep growing and changing throughout your lifetime. (28)
12 Mental Benefits of Physical Exercise
2. One huge study on over 1 million young, healthy men found it actually raised IQ. (34)
3. Exercise makes you more effective and productive by improving creativity, mental flexibility, processing speed, concentration, ability to manage time, and decision making. (35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41)
8. Exercising provides an immediate boost to self-control to help you overcome bad habits. (57)
10. Of course, exercise builds muscle and can help you maintain a healthy weight, but it particularly attacks hidden visceral fat (that unattractive belly fat).
This kind of fat is linked to a cluster of diseases and health conditions, including brain atrophy. (60)
11. It’s been repeatedly shown that exercise relieves symptoms of a wide range of mental health disorders including ADHD, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (61, 62, 63)
12. The National Sleep Foundation reports that getting 150 minutes of exercise a week improves sleep quality by 65%. (64)
People with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD are 5 times more likely than average to experience chronic insomnia.
By simply getting better sleep, many people experience substantial relief from their symptoms. (65)
Exercising for brain health doesn’t need to be strenuous.
You can get more of a mental boost from your workouts by taking them outdoors.
Compared to indoor exercise, exercising outdoors increases vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure, and self-esteem while lowering tension, depression, and fatigue. (69)
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14. Take Up a Creative Hobby
Hobbies are finally getting the attention they deserve.
Engaging in your favorite hobby focuses your mind in a way similar to meditation.
Hobbies can act as a natural antidepressant and may protect against brain aging. (70)
Knitting, particularly, gets a big thumbs-up.
In a large study of more than 3,500 knitters, over 80% of those with depression reported feeling happy when they knitted. (71)
Another study found that “purposeful activities” such as music, drawing, meditation, reading, arts and crafts, and doing home repairs specifically stimulated the neurological system and enhanced health and mental well-being. (72)
If you don’t currently have a hobby, here are some brain-boosting hobby ideas to get you started:
- bird watching
- creative writing
- martial arts
- playing a musical instrument
- playing games like chess, bridge, mahjong
If you still need some more ideas, check out this list of hobbies on Discoverahobby.com.
You’ll also find loads of activities you can do with like-minded people in your area at Meetup.com.
15. Engage in Lifelong Learning
To keep your mind eternally young, stay curious about the world and never stop learning.
As Albert Einstein observed, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”
The internet makes it easier than ever to engage in lifelong learning:
- Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace for online educational courses. They currently offer over 100,000 online video courses on a wide variety of topics. You can learn just about anything on Udemy, including how to create your own website, train your dog, play the guitar, trace your family tree, or forage for wild foods.
- TED iPad app allows you to create your own playlists of talks from the world’s most innovative thinkers.
- You can learn how to play piano with the online piano lessons at Flowkey.
- If you don’t own a piano, you can turn your computer or phone into a piano keyboard with Online Pianist’s virtual piano keyboard.
- Get a daily dose of culture with Daily Art, an app that shares the backstory of one painting masterpiece every day.
- At Chess.com you can learn or master chess on your computer or phone.
- Duolingo is a free app that teaches nearly two dozen foreign languages. It can also help you brush up on your English if it’s not your native language.
- You can develop a meditation practice for free with InsightTimer, the #1 meditation app for both Android and iOS. It gives you access to thousands of free guided meditations, music tracks, talks, and courses by some of the most esteemed names in meditation including Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, and Thich Nhat Hanh.
Is Online Brain Training a Good Mental Exercise?
You may be wondering why online brain training is not on this list.
Developers of brain training programs like Lumosity, BrainHQ, and Fit Brains promise everything from a better memory to increased IQ, but you should be skeptical of these claims.
This is a billion-dollar industry and there’s a lot of money at stake.
The experts are divided on whether brain training works in healthy adults. (73)
Here’s a look at two of the largest brain training studies and their conclusions:
The ACTIVE Study
The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study was funded by the US National Institute on Aging.
It was the first large-scale trial to show that computerized brain training can improve cognitive function in older adults.
Study participants were 74 years old on average and in good health.
ACTIVE Study Conclusion: Computerized brain training can provide long-lasting cognitive benefits in healthy seniors in the three cognitive areas tested — memory, reasoning, and processing speed.
Brain Test Britain
The Brain Test Britain study is by far the largest computer-based brain training study so far with over 60,000 participants.
Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 80, with an average age of 43.
One of the study designers, Dr. Adrian Owen of the University of Cambridge, made this indictment:
“The result is crystal clear. Brain training is only as good as spending six weeks using the internet. There is no meaningful difference.” (77)
The Brain Test Britain study results were published in the prestigious science journal Nature.
Brain Test Britain Conclusion: Computer-based brain training shows no benefits beyond improved skill at playing brain training games for people of a wide variety of ages.
Brain Training and Lost Opportunity Cost
One of my biggest qualms about brain training is the lost opportunity cost.
The average person already spends 10 hours every day staring at screens. (78)
It seems likely that brain training is not the best use of your time when you could be engaged in other activities that are more rewarding and challenging instead.
Another drawback of commercial brain training programs is that they rely almost exclusively on sight, when ideally, you should be engaging in activities that use all of your senses.
Take that 20 minutes you would have spent on brain training to exercise, meditate, visit a friend, or engage in your favorite pastime instead.
Brain Exercises: Take the Next Step
Your brain thrives on variety to keep those synapses firing.
Exercise your brain with activities that are novel, challenging, and complex.
Above all, remember that learning real life skills is the best way to enhance your brain power.