So what do we actually need to do to keep our brains functioning as well as possible as we get older? In The Mature Mind, Dr. Gene Cohen writes about how challenging physical and mental exercise stimulate brain growth factors, chemicals that cause primitive brain cells to mature into neurons. Physical and psychological stress can suppress this, especially when it is chronic. So with all of our stress, how are we not all brain dead by now? The good news is that our neurons can recover if we nourish them properly.
Your physical activity doesn’t have to be rigorous but you do need some regular aerobic exercise to increase blood flow to your brain. This removes waste products, improves oxygen levels and increases endorphins. This will also slow the decline in brain function that comes with aging and increase neural connections within your brain. You can even add a social component to exercise that will help even more. Having a strong social network helps to lower stress hormones and your blood pressure.
We also need mental activity to improve your brain function and it needs to be challenging. It is even better if it is fun. This can be found in our work, in volunteer activities, in social activities or even in our alone time. Learn a new language, take a class in something you always wanted to learn, join an art or music program, join a knitting or scrapbooking group, or take a dance class. Spend your leisure time reading, writing, doing word puzzles or watching informative videos (especially if it is a skill you try out). Even actively watching sports can exercise your brain (except maybe baseball). One of my favorite activities is traveling. There is all the planning, you are learning and seeing new things and you exercise as you explore.
Achieving mastery in something you enjoy can really improve your health. And I don’t mean you need to become a professor or go to the Olympics. You just need to gradually and steadily improve your knowledge and skill and strive to reach some higher level. This increases your positivity and sense of control, which boosts your immune system and mindset.
Dr. Cohen recommends a great way to make sure you are getting balanced exercise for your brain. You can make a box with four squares. On one side is low or high mobility. On the other is individual or group. So you would have boxes for low mobility/individual activity, high mobility/individual activity, low mobility/group activity and high mobility\group activity. Put everything you do into the appropriate category. You then get a visual account of what types of activities fill your days. If you are diversified in your activities, you are more resilient to change. For example, I do taiko drumming with a group (high mobility/group), am in a book club (low mobility/group), I hike and run (high mobility/individual), and I am learning Italian (low mobility/individual).
Make a box for yourself and fill it with activities in each category. What is your ratio of each category? Where can you add some activities to balance yourself? I would love to hear how it turned out and how you are planning to grow.