Welcome everybody to More Than Healthy as we continue to share our weekly health tips. This week we’re talking about one of my very favorite subjects. Tip #69 is all about the health benefits of exercising your brain. To watch our weekly Video Tip, click this link. To listen to the audio podcast, click on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
Brain health is extremely important to me. I’ve spent a lot of time studying how to best protect my brain. I believe so much in the power of the brain that I’ve even become certified as a Life Coach. I’ve used what I’ve learned to help others get healthier, be able to sleep better, and lose weight.
But this week’s post is a bit different. Just as we’ve talked before about properly exercising our bodies, this post is going to address exercising our brains. We’ll talk about what that means, some of the amazing benefits of doing it, and also some great ways to do it.
How’s your memory?
Many of our More Than Healthy clients tell us their memory just isn’t what it used to be. They say this with a sigh and shake of their head, and it’s almost as if they’ve resigned themselves to this new reality, and there’s nothing they can do about it. So many people believe that a loss of mental sharpness and a decline in memory are inevitable parts of aging. But after spending years researching brain health, I know there are many things we can do to maintain mental acuity.
We’ve addressed many of these things, as the brain requires healthy fats and oils to operate well. The right amounts of vitamins and minerals definitely affect the brain, too. Exercising your brain is a vital part of keeping the brain working well. I love what author Jim Kwik says in his book, Limitless, : “There’s no such thing as a good memory or a bad memory; there is only a trained memory and an untrained memory.”
Can you really train memory?
What are you currently doing to exercise your brain each day? Think of it this way – if you sat on the couch for weeks at a time, what would happen to your ability to walk? Would you simply say, “Well, I guess since I’m getting older, I can no longer walk anymore.” Or would you recognize that you stopped using the muscles in your legs and so they’ve atrophied and no longer work the way they used to? That’s exactly what happens to your brain if you stop exercising your memory.
I am living proof of this. A few years ago, I had such bad brain fog that I was repeating myself and forgetting conversations I had just had. I’m sure much of it was from the inflammation in my brain and body, which we’ve discussed in many previous posts. We think some of it was also caused by brain injuries I had when I was younger. Some of it also probably stemmed from the anesthesia from the surgeries I’ve had.
But, I didn’t realize that I had stopped using my brain the way I had in my younger years, and so some of it was simply caused by less use.
What my brain scan told me
I had a full body scan done a few months ago in Naples, Florida. It was incredibly thorough and gave us an immense amount of information. I reviewed the brain scan with my doctor, who said it showed 87 white spots on my brain. These spots happen when your white matter becomes damaged. The damage causes white matter lesions.
Some of these lesions might not cause any noticeable symptoms and are almost considered to be normal as we age. But sometimes these lesions can damage important pathways within your brain and cause memory problems. With enough lesions, it can also cause problems with balance and walking. Generally speaking, the more white matter lesions, the more significant the symptoms.
My doctor said she believes these legions are caused by reduced blood flow to the nerve fibers in white matter, likely from previous injuries. They don’t know if I can do anything to repair them, but knowing all that Carla and I are doing to live as healthy as possible, she said maybe I could be their first patient to do that.
What they do know is that I can work to prevent more of these white lesions from happening. The doctor highly recommended exercising my brain, especially my memory, every single day. So that’s what I’ve started doing.
We’ll get to details about how you can exercise your brain later. First, let’s discuss some of the best benefits of brain exercises.
Here are four of our favorite health benefits of exercising your brain.
Benefit #1: Brain exercise improves your memory
Probably the most obvious benefit of brain exercise is that it can improve your memory. Jessica Langbaum, Ph.D., and co-director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, says, “Even as we age, our brain continues to develop new neurons and new neuronal connections. Engaging in cognitively stimulating activities and brain training over the course of your life can positively impact your brain functions, including memory, attention, thinking, language, and reasoning skills.”
Studies show that cognitive training (i.e. brain exercise) positively impacts hippocampal function. The hippocampus is part of the limbic system, deep in the temporal lobe of the brain. It’s vital for learning, memory, and spatial navigation. It’s also susceptible to damage from injury, stress, and disease, so learning that there are things we can do to protect and heal it is really great news.
Isn’t that awesome? If you’re one of those people who think you just have to accept the loss of memory as one of the factors of getting older, think again! Exercising your brain could be just what you need to improve your memory as you age.
I’m grateful to report that through all of my nutrition and lifestyle changes, I’ve reclaimed my memory. I beat that terrible, debilitating brain fog. My wife and kids no longer think I’ve got early-onset Alzheimer’s. (Read more about that here.) But since we’ve recently learned even more about exercising the brain, I’ve taken a much more active role in working to improve my memory through daily brain exercise.
It’s too soon to tell if it’s helping, but I like to compare it to the gym. You don’t go a few times and then think, “Oh, I’m so much stronger and fitter.” It takes several months to be able to see a little progress. But over time and with consistent training, you realize that you are stronger and that all you’re doing is making a difference.
Benefit # 2: Brain exercises can improve your attention span
“What’s that?” Oh sorry, I just got distracted (haha). That happens to me quite often. I admit, I’m easily distracted. I’ve always had a short attention span. But, I’ve noticed that the more I improve my diet, make positive lifestyle changes, and play games that challenge my brain, the better my attention span is.
Even though I was diagnosed with ADHD at 43, I decided to make it my superpower. (There’s a whole chapter on this in my book, Unlocking the Leaky Gut Code.) I’ve worked hard to use all that energy to my advantage to try and increase my attention span. I deliberately work to remove distractions that can keep me from learning or paying attention when I really need to.
Increasing time doing brain games (more on that below) is an easy way for me to work to improve my attention span, as it’s a skill that can transfer across my personal and professional life.
So if you find yourself daydreaming more often, losing focus in meetings where you need to pay attention, or just getting distracted more easily, it might be comforting to know that you don’t have to accept this condition, no matter your age. Make a plan to exercise your brain more often, along with some of the other tips we’ve shared in previous posts, and just see if you can improve your attention span.
An interesting way to increase attention span
I’ve never been a big fan of video games. But a study from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China showed that after just one hour of playing a game of League of Legends, participants improved their ability to focus on relevant information while screening out distractions.
Here’s how it worked. They recruited participants with over two years of playing experience (who were ranked in the top 7% of the game) as well as those with under 6 months of playing experience (ranked in the bottom 11 %). Researchers assessed their selective visual attention (the brain’s ability to focus while disregarding less relevant information) before and after playing the game.
Before playing the video game, the expert participants were found to have stronger visual selective attention than the non-experts, and their EEG (electroencephalogram machine) results showed more attention-related brain activity.
After playing League of Legends for one hour, both groups demonstrated improved visual selective attention, even reporting similar scores in the post-game test.
I’m not one for advocating video games, but I think this shows there are ways that we can improve our attention span.
Benefit #3: Brain exercise can help decrease your reaction time
I don’t know about you, but one thing I really don’t want to give up as I age is my ability to drive a car. One reason that frequently happens is that our reaction time slows as we age.
Suppose my reaction time slows, and I’m unable to prevent an accident that could have been avoided without a delayed reaction time. This makes me unsafe on the road, and is one of the main reasons doctors make elderly patients turn in their keys.
Some studies show that brain training games with timed challenges and quick-fire rounds aimed to test your speed, attention, and ability to react quickly and accurately help improve your reaction times.
The ACTIVE study
One study, called the ACTIVE study, was led by six academic research universities (including Johns Hopkins) and funded by the National Institutes of Health. This study was designed to evaluate three separate types of cognitive training: memory, reasoning, and speed of processing.
All 2,832 participants were healthy adults aged 65 or older. and did cognitive training. Those in the cognitive training groups spent 2 hours a week for five weeks, a total of just 10 hours, doing cognitive training exercises, similar to a program called BrainHQ that many people (including us) use today. Some groups were given a “booster” training after one and three years. Researchers followed participants for ten years to evaluate the long-term effects of the training.
There were several positive outcomes of this interesting study:
- Improvements in speed of processing abilities
- Improvements in everyday speed (for the booster group)
- Protection against declines in instrumental activities of daily living—that contribute to the ability to live independently—equivalent to 2-3 years of benefit.
- 35% reduction in risk of serious health-related quality of life decline, higher self-rated health
- 38% reduction in the risk of developing depressive symptoms, and a 30% reduction in risk of increasing clinically important depressive symptoms
- 48% reduction in the risk of at-fault car crash
- Many effects that last 10 years without continuous training
Wow! Here’s proof that older adults can make significant cognitive improvements with appropriate cognitive training, or brain exercises. All from 10 hours of brain exercises over the course of five weeks! I like all of these study results, but the one that stood out for me as someone who enjoys driving a car was the reduction of risk through an at-fault car crash.
Benefit #4: Brain exercises can improve mental agility
Mental agility relates to your problem-solving skills and your ability to think critically and solve problems efficiently. And who doesn’t want that to improve as we age? In the ACTIVE study referenced above, they saw improvements in the speed of processing abilities after participants participated in cognitive training.
At both the 5-year and the 10-year follow-ups, participants that used the cognitive training continued to show significant improvement even though they were not training continuously across that time. That’s enough to convince me that I want to exercise my brain with cognitive training!
Mental agility and a growth mindset
Additional tips to keep the mind agile include keeping a “growth mindset.” You’ve probably heard that term before. And, if you haven’t read it, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the million-copy best-seller by Dr. Carol Dweck is well worth the read.
A growth mindset basically means you believe that hard work and effort are the means to success; your talents and abilities are all susceptible to growth despite your challenges. Someone with a growth mindset would never shrug and say, “Welp, I’m old, I just have to accept losing my memory and deal with lots of brain fog.” Instead, they’d look at the challenges that aging presents and say, “What can I do to keep my brain as healthy as possible?” And then they’d act!
Forbes Magazine gives good advice about the connection between growth mindset and mental agility: “To develop a growth mindset, it comes back to having a beginner’s mind and abandoning assumptions and expectations. It requires keeping curiosity and wonder alive. Pay close attention to the chatter in your mind, whether it is positive or negative or a mix of both. If your chatter is positive and keeps you pumped, own it and use it to your advantage. If your chatter needs an attitude adjustment, the power to change your relationship with it exists inside of you.”
How can you exercise your brain?
Now that we’ve listed some of the awesome benefits of exercising your brain, let’s talk about some of the things you can do to exercise it. Brain exercise, also called cognitive training, is basically anything that requires attention, focus, and engagement. There are many ways to do this, including things like playing chess, gardening, or learning a dance from with your grandkids.
The Alzheimer’s Association says that great activities for your brain include learning a new skill or hobby. Taking classes and reading are also good ways to keep your mind engaged.
The Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative recommends playing brain games to keep ourselves mentally sharp. There are also lots of games you can play on your phone that test your cognitive juices. Games like Wordle, Words with Friends, and Scrabble Go are great, because they continue to get more challenging the longer you play.
Crossword puzzles are also a good option. An 18-month study published in NEJM Evidence followed participants between ages 62 and 80. Results showed that people with memory problems who did web-based crossword puzzles showed improvement in cognition. They also experienced less brain shrinkage.
There are good brain training programs online like Peak, Elevate, and Luminosity. But our favorite so far is BrainHQ. This is the one Dr. Dale Bredesen recommends in his book (that we highly recommend), The End of Alzheimer’s. BrainHQ serves up a new game every day to test every level of cognitive ability. As you get better, it gets harder. We’ve been playing this one for a couple of months now, and we see marked improvement each week.
Sports and brain exercise
I’m especially excited to share this particular way to exercise your brain. Dr. Daniel G. Amen, is a specialist in brain research and is the author of Change Your Brain Every Day, (as well as six other books on brain health). He says, “People who play racquet sports live longer than everybody else.”
As an extremely avid pickleball player, this news makes me very happy! But it gets even better. The cerebellum makes up 10% of the brain’s volume, but it contains more than half of the brain’s neurons. It’s a critically important part of the brain. One of its main functions is physical and thought coordination, or in other words, how quickly you can process information, and how fast your body can react.
Playing a racquet sport like pickleball requires fast reflexes. It’s both aerobic and strategic. It’s working out multiple parts of the brain at once, including that very important cerebellum. It also involves your parietal lobes in the back part of the brain, seeing where the ball is in space. You’re also using the frontal lobes because you’re always creating strategy as you play.
“Pickleball is a great, whole-brain exercise,” says Dr. Amen. “I teach my patients, get a coach, get good, this will help rehabilitate your brain.”
So, not only is my body getting a great physical workout when I play pickleball, my brain is getting a great workout, too! This is the best news ever!
And as a bonus…
Just the other day Carla was telling me how much her pickleball game has improved since she started doing her brain training. In her words:
“I’ve seen my pickleball game improve since I started brain training. I sometimes hit the ball when I feel like I didn’t even see it. My body simply reacts quickly, and I get to more shots. I think it’s because of improved reaction time and focus.”
So brain training is like a two-for-one! Not only is her brain getting a great workout, it’s also translating into better physicality on the court!
Keep your brain sharp by moving your body
Don’t play pickleball? That’s ok! Choose an activity that gets your body moving and do it! Consider this piece of advice: “I heard a researcher interviewed about lifestyle factors and she was asked the best advice she could give to live a brain healthy lifestyle. She replied, ‘Move.’ When asked for a second piece of advice, she said, ‘Move more.’”
Other ways to support brain health
There are many other things you can do every day to support good brain health. In fact, pretty much every tip we share here at More Than Healthy impacts your brain. For some other healthy ideas that pack a punch for your brain, check out some of our other posts, including:
- Our post on healthy fats, so integral to healthy brain function
- This post on polyphenols and how they protect against neurological disease
- The truth about healthy oils and brain health
- Why healthy sleep has so much impact on the brain
…And so many more!
Dr. Langbaum, co-director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Institute, says, “The best things you can do is to get enough sleep, be physically active, eat nutrient-rich foods, and find stimulating activities that interest and challenge you.” Carla and I couldn’t agree more.
So, when should you start? The best time to start is today! No matter your age, you will reap the health benefits of exercising your brain and living a brain-healthy lifestyle.
Brain health and More Than Healthy hair analysis
Something else to consider is that it may be a little more difficult to improve the cognitive function in your brain if you’re deficient in your vitamins and minerals. A great way to find out if you are is with hair analysis testing, an amazingly informative service now offered at More Than Healthy. With just a few strands of your hair, you receive a full report looking at toxins, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electromagnetic frequency exposure, chemicals, radiation, parasites, immune factors, and foods you should avoid.
Go to our website to learn more. You can schedule a local hair analysis or order it online to be mailed to you today.
Ready to give your brain a workout?
I hope you’ve learned something new and feel extra motivated to access the potentially life-changing health benefits of exercising your brain. We always love hearing from you. What are your favorite brain games? Do you have any questions about exercising your brain?
If you have any questions about this or any health topic, we try to respond to all comments on our social media pages on Facebook or Instagram (@morethanhealthyliving). Please don’t hesitate to reach out.
We’d love to become your health coaches as you work to become “more than healthy” and achieve optimal health. Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next week.
Note: Remember, we’re not doctors. We’re just sharing with you what’s worked for us on our health journey. You will want to consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet and supplementation.