Activities that are new and complex are good brain exercise. Get real benefits in memory, focus, mood & more with these best evidence-based brain exercises.
Brain exercises help your mental health and fitness in the same way your body benefits from physical exercise.
And just as doing a variety of physical exercises like aerobics, strength training, and stretching is more beneficial than doing just one, so it is with doing different kinds of brain exercises too.
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 simplifies life.
It limits brain-draining decision making.
It lets us perform complex tasks like driving a car with little mental effort.
Routines are run by our subconscious and require very little brain energy.
And consequently they 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
Exercising your mind helps you be your mental best now while it protects against future memory loss and cognitive decline. (1)
- 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
Let’s review some of the best activities that have repeatedly been proven to support cognitive and mental health.
Remember, these and any good brain exercises are novel and complex.
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The Benefits of Neurobic Brain Exercises
Dr. Lawrence Katz is an internationally recognized neurobiologist who was 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. (An updated version was released this year.)
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 as much as it is 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, use 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 with is wearing your watch upside down.
This forces your brain to really think every time you glance at your watch.
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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)
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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!
There’s no need to stick to driving.
You can 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.
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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.
It also stimulates 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.
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The only way to continue to stimulate your brain is to give it new challenges and 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 languages, playing musical instruments, or chess are ideal brain exercises because there is always more to learn.
10. Do Things the Hard Way
The most 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 found that the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for storing and organizing memories, in a typical London cabbie is significantly larger than average. (13)
11. Connect With Different People
Any time you connect with others, you expose yourself to new ideas and other ways of thinking about things.
But you can get even more brain benefits from spending time with people unlike you.
Intentionally seek out others with different interests, careers, or skill sets or those who are from different social or cultural environments.
This opens you up to new perspectives and ideas.
This challenge to your current way of thinking stimulates mental growth.
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The (Surprisingly) Best Brain Exercises of All
The next three ways to stimulate your mind won’t feel like a mental workout, but may be the best brain exercises of all.
12. Start Meditating
It’s estimated that over 18 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 do it. (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.
✓ Zen12 Meditation
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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 95% 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 brain 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 about brain exercise would be complete without emphasizing how important physical exercise is 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)
Exercise reduces stress by increasing the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (25)
Learn more —
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It increases the levels of brain chemicals that promote new brain cell formation and new neural connections. (26)
It protects against mental decline and reduces the risk of dementia. (27)
Exercise improves circulation and sends more oxygen to your oxygen-hungry brain.
Exercising for brain health doesn’t need to be strenuous.
14. Take Up a Creative Hobby
Craft hobbies may not be high art, but they are finally getting more attention for another reason.
They have the power to focus the brain similarly to meditation.
They act as a natural antidepressant and may protect against brain aging. (31)
Knitting, particularly, got a big thumbs-up recently.
In a large study of more than 3,500 knitters, over 80% of those with depression reported feeling happy when they knitted. (32)
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. (33)
If you’re like the average American, you spend 10 hours every day staring at screens. (34)
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Carve out a little time to try one of these brain-boosting hobbies instead:
- craft hobbies of all kinds
- creating any form of art
- creative writing
- learning a second language
- martial arts
- playing a musical instrument
- playing chess or Scrabble
I bet there is at least one thing on this list that you already enjoy.
If not, check out this list of over 300 hobby ideas on NotSoBoringLife.com.
Is Online Brain Training Good Brain Exercise?
Online brain training programs like Lumosity, BrainHQ, and Fit Brains promise everything from a better memory to increased IQ.
Do they work as advertised?
The companies behind these programs naturally say yes, but keep in mind there is a lot of money at stake.
Brain training is now a billion dollar a year industry. (35)
In 2016, Lumosity, the undisputed leader of brain training programs, was fined $2 million for making unsubstantiated claims. (36)
A group of 73 leading brain scientists released a statement criticizing the companies that promote and sell brain training programs for making exaggerated claims and for feeding on the fears of seniors and baby boomers concerned with future cognitive decline. (37)
Learn more —
Does Lumosity (& Online Brain Training) Work?
Two months later, another group of neuroscientists who believe brain training can work issued a rebuttal. (38)
It’s pretty clear the answer so the question “does brain training work?” is yet to be definitively answered. (39)
If you think you could benefit from playing online games to stimulate your brain, find one that has a free trial and give it a try.
But if you’re like most people, you already spend WAY too much time on your electronic devices.
Almost everyone would benefit more from physical exercise or meditation than from playing online games.
15. Use Apps that Exercise Your Brain in Unexpected Ways
I know, I’ve been telling you to put down your electronics a little more.
But, let’s face it — few of us will!
So here’s a way technology can exercise your brain.
Most online brain training programs like Lumosity and Fit Brains have app versions of their brain games.
But we prefer apps that use real life skills to stimulate your mind instead.
Get your daily dose of culture with Daily Art app.
This app shares interesting background stories about one painting masterpiece every day.
TED iPad app allows you to create your own playlists of talks from the world’s most innovative thinkers.
Khan Academy allows you to “learn almost anything for free” with a series of more than 10,000 educational videos that cover math, science, economics and the humanities.
Khan Academy can help you with grammar but it doesn’t teach foreign languages.
You can download Duolingo for that.
This app will help you learn Spanish, French, or many other foreign languages for free.
And there’s a version to help you brush up on your English if it’s not your native language.
At Chess.com you can learn or master chess either on your computer or phone.
Brain Exercises: The Bottom Line
Your brain thrives on variety to keep those synapses firing.
Exercise your brain with activities that are novel, challenging, and complex.
The more kinds of mentally stimulating activities you engage in, the happier and healthier your brain will be.
We’ve shown you many ways to incorporate brain exercise of all kinds into your life.
You are limited only by your imagination!
Above all, remember that learning real life skills is a better way to enhance your brain power.
Computerized brain training is optional.