Top Brain Exercises to Keep You Sharp (in-depth guide)

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Last updated October 30, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Activities that are new and complex are good brain exercises. Get real improvements in memory, focus, mood & more with these evidence-based brain exercises.

To keep your body fit, you know that you need regular and varied physical exercise that includes aerobic, strength, flexibility, and balance exercises. 

But to keep mentally fit, you may not know how to go about exercising your brain.

Only certain kinds of activities are actually good for the brain, and many that are promoted as such don’t live up to the hype.

Whether you’re looking for better mental performance or want to prevent mental decline, we’ve pulled together some of 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.

Routines reduce brain-draining decision-making.

They let us perform complex tasks, like driving a car, relatively effortlessly.

Routines are run by our subconscious, require little mental energy, and, consequently, provide the brain with little stimulation.

Just as your body gets soft and lethargic from lack of physical activity, your brain gets sluggish and slow from lack of mental stimulation.

Shaking up your daily routines is key to a healthier, sharper mind.

Experts agree that for an activity to stimulate your brain enough for it to be considered exercise, 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

Though you probably won’t get all of the following benefits from any one activity, various brain exercises have been shown to help in some of these ways: 

  • less stress
  • 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


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The Benefits of Neurobic Brain Exercises

Lawrence Katz, PhD, was an internationally recognized neurobiologist and 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 coined the term neurobics to describe brain exercises that enhance brain performance by using all five senses in new and novel ways.

" Any activity can be turned into a good brain exercise provided it is new, fun, and challenging.

He explained that mental decline is not usually from the loss of brain cells but from the loss of communication between brain cells.

This occurs due to the decreasing number and complexity of dendrites, the branches of nerve cells. 

He found that by doing the right kind of mental exercise, we can grow new dendritic connections.

Katz noted that most brain exercises rely mainly on sight.

He believed that the key to fully exercising the brain is to engage all the senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell — in different ways.

He contended that any activity can be turned into a good brain exercise provided it is new, fun, and challenging.

He listed 83 brain exercises in his book.

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 — that’s why it gives your brain a good workout.

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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.

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 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.

Next, you can channel your inner Leonardo da Vinci by trying to master the art of writing backward, known as mirror writing.

5. Read Books Aloud

Take turns reading and listening to a book with your significant other, a friend, or a child.

If no one’s around, read to your pet.

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 activating 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. 

It’s been said that Bill Gates intentionally drove a different route on the way home from work each day to stimulate his brain, and look where he ended up!

You can also take new routes when walking, biking, or riding public transportation.


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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 mental 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. 

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 in one area has the potential to improve unrelated skills.

Here are some of the most significant ways to stimulate your brain to reach your cognitive potential: 

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.

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If you are a couch potato, sign up for a dance class.

If you are athletic, learn to knit.

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 benefits taper off because your brain becomes more efficient at that activity.

The only way to continually 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, growing a garden, researching genealogy, or mastering chess are ideal brain exercises because there is always more to learn.

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.

Memorize your grocery shopping list instead of relying on a shopping list app.

Turn off the GPS and learn to read a map, using your innate sense of direction to find your way around instead. 

Related on Be Brain Fit —
Proven Ways to Increase IQ and Intelligence

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 cabbie license.

Research confirms that the typical London cabbie has a significantly larger-than-average hippocampus, the part of the brain considered its memory center. 

11. Make Diverse Social Connections

Any time you connect with others, you expose yourself to new ideas and diverse ways of thinking.

But you can get the most brain benefits from spending time with people obviously different from yourself.

Intentionally seek out others who have dissimilar interests or careers, or are from other 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

These last four brain exercises 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 peak mental performance.

12. Practice Meditation

It’s estimated that nearly 20 million Americans meditate

Prestigious health organizations, including Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, and the National Institutes of Health, acknowledge its many benefits. 

Major corporations like Google, General Mills, Target, Apple, Nike, and Procter & Gamble offer structured meditation programs for executives and encourage employees at all levels to participate. 

The US military finds that meditation helps troops deal with stress, improves their cognitive resilience, and increases their ability to focus. 

But is meditation really exercising your mind?

Here’s why meditation makes our list of top brain exercises.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
Binaural Beats: A Meditation Shortcut

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

And 90% of these thoughts are the same, day in and day out. 

Training your mind to be quiet is extremely hard work!

Meditation works so much like mental exercise that it’s been referred to as “pushups for the brain.” 

Cornell University reports that more than 1,000 published studies have demonstrated the health benefits of meditation. 

The mental benefits of meditation include stress reduction, improved memory, learning ability and mood, increased focus and attention, and even reversal of brain atrophy.

13. Get Physical Exercise

No discussion of brain exercise would be complete without emphasizing the importance of physical exercise for the brain.

Physical exercise might be the most important thing you can do to keep your brain in good shape.

Many experts believe it may be even more consequential than using your brain to think! 

Physical exercise provides brain benefits via a variety of mechanisms:

  • Even as little as one 30-minute session of physical exercise can improve brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to keep growing and changing throughout life. 
  • Physical exercise increases mental energy by encouraging the formation of new mitochondria, tiny powerhouses found in every cell, including brain cells. 

12 Mental Benefits of Physical Exercise

1. Physical exercise can help you pay attention, learn and think faster, and remember more

2. One huge study on over 1 million young, healthy men found that physical exercise measurably raised IQ

3. Exercise makes you more effective and productive by improving creativity, mental flexibility, processing speed, concentration, ability to manage time, and decision-making. 

4. Exercising can make you happier, both now and in the long run

It can help you control your emotions, pull yourself out of bad moods, and be more emotionally resilient

5. Physical exercise can make you less anxious and less prone to stress-induced depression

A landmark Duke University study found that exercise worked even better than the popular antidepressant Zoloft. 

6. Exercise boosts energy, spurs enthusiasm, and encourages you to have more fun and be playful. 

7. Self-esteem and libido improve to make you feel more attractive, regardless of your age. 

8. Exercising provides an immediate boost to self-control, helping you overcome bad habits. 

9. Exercise can lessen withdrawal symptoms when quitting addictive substances. 

10. Of course, exercise builds muscle and can help you maintain a healthy weight, but it particularly attacks hidden visceral fat (that unattractive and unhealthy belly fat).

This kind of fat is linked to a cluster of diseases and health conditions, including brain atrophy

11. It’s been repeatedly shown that exercise relieves symptoms of a wide range of mental health and neurological disorders, including attention disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis

12. One study found that getting 150 minutes of exercise a week improves sleep quality by 65%

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. 

Exercising for brain health and fitness doesn’t need to be strenuous.

Walking is particularly beneficial for the brain, as are exercises with a strong mind-body connection like yoga, qigong, and tai chi

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. 

14. Take Up a Creative Hobby

As brain-building stimulation, hobbies are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Engaging in a favorite hobby focuses the mind in a way similar to meditation.

Hobbies can act as a natural antidepressant and may protect against brain aging. 

Knitting, particularly, gets a big thumbs-up.

In a study of more than 3,500 knitters, over 80% of those with depression reported feeling happy when they knitted. 

Another study found that “purposeful activities,” such as drawing, reading, writing, and doing home repairs, specifically stimulated the neurological system and enhanced health and mental well-being. 

If you don’t currently have a hobby, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • baking
  • bird watching
  • camping
  • cooking
  • creative writing
  • cycling
  • dancing
  • drawing
  • gardening
  • genealogy
  • geocaching
  • hiking
  • jewelry making
  • knitting
  • martial arts
  • painting
  • photography
  • playing a musical instrument
  • playing games like chess, bridge, mahjong
  • quilting
  • reading
  • traveling
  • yoga
  • winemaking
  • woodworking

If you still need some more ideas, check out this list of hobbies on

15. Engage in Lifelong Learning

To keep your mind 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 185,000 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.
  • The TED iPad app allows you to create your own playlists of talks from the world’s most innovative thinkers.
  • Get a daily dose of culture with Daily Art, an app that shares the backstory of one painting masterpiece every day.
  • At, 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 with InsightTimer, the #1 free 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 meditation teachers, including Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Is Online Brain Training a Good Mental Exercise?

You may wonder why online brain training is not on this list.

Developers of brain training programs like Lumosity and BrainHQ promise everything from better memory to increased IQ, but you should be skeptical of these claims.

This is a billion-dollar industry so there’s a lot of money at stake.

The experts are divided on whether brain training works in healthy adults. 

And even scientists who support brain training acknowledge that brain exercise companies overstate their claims and that most brain training studies have been substandard

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, neuroscientist Adrian Owen, PhD, 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.” 

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 American already spends an alarming 17 hours every day staring at their various electronic devices

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, chat with a friend, or engage in a favorite pastime instead.

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