10 Steps to Brain Fitness

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1. Meditate

Studies show that meditation may help slow some aspects of cognitive aging. In a small study led by researchers at the University of Technology In Dalian, China, meditation produced changes in the brains of participants that no other relaxing activity, including deep-breathing exercises, could cause. These effects could be seen after a few short sessions, even in people who normally don't meditate [source: National Health Service]. Although the study was small and the results only preliminary, experts believe meditation might be a useful tool in preventing or treating certain mental disorders.

Another study showed that meditation can help reduce anxiety, improve concentration and clear your mind of negativity [source: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins]. The study points out that meditation might affect the areas of your brain that deal with anxiety and positive/negative thoughts. And here's an added bonus -- the study also showed boosts in participants' immune functions.

Meditation can be formal or informal and you can combine it with yoga or tai chi for physical fitness.

For more ways to keep your brain fit, peruse the links on the following page.

What makes some people smarter than others?

Experts have identified something called cortical modules that might just be the key to understanding variations in intelligence. Cortical modules are interconnected neuronal cells that are the base to learning cognitive skills. The mapping of the cortical modules is mostly determined before you're even born, but learning and experiences also contribute to development. This ongoing learning is known as cognitive plasticity and can be developed and expanded throughout your whole life [source: Science20].

2. Drink Coffee

For all the bad rep coffee gets, it seems that when it comes to your brain, a daily cup of java will only do you good. Experts have long maintained that coffee improves energy levels and short-term memory, but a new study shows that it might also improve reaction time and your capacity to process information [source: New Scientist]. In the study, participants who had a large cup of coffee were able to plan and monitor activities better, could pay more attention, were able to concentrate better and could recall more information than those who had a placebo drink. 

Other studies have shown that coffee may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. It can also protect your brain from the effects of high cholesterol and can become a potent ally in the fight against neurological disorders [source: BBC News].

You don't need to pick up a habit of drinking five cups of coffee a day for caffeine to work. Just one cup in the morning can improve brain fitness and jump-start your day.

Research shows what college students have known for years: A little bit of caffeine helps your brain stay sharp.

3. Avoid Dangerous Chemicals

Abuse of alcohol, nicotine and drugs takes a toll on the brain. According to the National Institutes of Health, certain substances can cause changes in a number of areas of your brain, including your memory, judgment, coordination and sensation areas. Long-term abuse of alcohol and drugs can cause brain cells to die. This reduces your memory and can affect your sleep, appetite and emotions -- and can reduce your ability to learn and remember new information [source: National Institutes of Health].

Surprisingly, it's not just drugs that can damage your brain. Heavy metals have a similar, if not greater, effect on your memory and cognitive abilities. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that exposure to lead can lower your IQ and cause progressive mental decline. Mercury poisoning was known in the past as "mad hatter disease," because hat makers used mercury in their trade and experienced a number of mental and emotional side effects from mercury exposure, including irritability, memory lapses, tremors and vision changes [source:The Franklin Institute].

Exposure to heavy metals is common for people who work in mines or around burning coal and incinerators. However, metals can be found in much more seemingly innocent places. For example, fish can be contaminated with mercury, because environmental pollution adds heavy metals to river water. Buying farm-grown fish can prevent you from adding mercury to your brain.

4. Exercise Your Brain

You think it's only your body that needs exercise? Think again. The brain has the capacity to keep learning as long as you're alive. The more you stimulate it, the quicker and better it will be able to remember and register new information. Brain exercises don't have to be complicated. For example, you can challenge your brain by switching hands to do your tasks. If you're right-handed, try picking up objects, using scissors or holding a fork with your left hand. Because you're not used to doing this, your brain will have to concentrate harder to perform the task well.

In 1999, Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, created a system called Neurobics. Neurobics are exercises that engage the brain and make it work harder, which improves its fitness [source: The Franklin Institute]. Any activity that makes you aware of your five senses is basically a Neurobic exercise. For example, try getting dressed for work with your eyes closed. Can you guess what clothes are in your closet by the way they feel or smell? You can also try "confusing" your brain by taking a different route back from work or rearranging the furniture in your home.

Not ready to go around bumping into walls with your eyes closed? A study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago shows that crosswords and puzzles can keep your brain younger and stronger, and might even help delay dementia [source: BBC].

The Supermemo System

Repetitio est mater studiorum. Repetition truly is the mother of learning, as even modern experts agree. The Supermemo System allows you to remember something by repeating the information over and over in your head until it becomes an actual part of your cerebral cortex. To make the most of the method, repeat information to yourself on a regular basis -- often enough that you don't forget, but in large enough intervals that guarantee the information will remain in your brain [source: SuperMemo].

5. Exercise Your Body

Experts have been recommending exercise for years. Exercise to lose weight, keep your cholesterol down and prevent heart disease. But how about exercising to get smarter? Or to beat depression, lack of energy and even attention deficit disorder? New research shows exercise can do more than just keep your body in shape. It can also improve brain health. As little as 12 minutes of exercise a day can help improve your concentration and alertness, increase your sense of well-being and help you focus better. 

Exercise increases the production of the two feel-good hormones: dopamine and serotonin. The effect is so great that experts recommend exercise as one of the most effective ways to battle depression [source: Medscape]. Of course, this is a catch-22. If you're depressed, you're likely feeling tired, run-down and unmotivated. The last thing you want is to go for a jog or hit the gym. No need for that, the experts say. Instead, find something you enjoy and do it regularly. Love to hike, play Frisbee with your dog or dance? Then go ahead. Anything that keeps you active will stimulate your nervous system and help you relax and let go of tension and frustration or anger.

Keeping your body fit helps keep up your brain fitness. Exercising produces helpful hormones and keeps all sorts of body systems and functions in check to keep your brain working properly. Read while you jog on a treadmill and you exercise body and mind.

6. Do Something Creative

Painting, doing pottery or learning to dance can all improve your brain fitness. In fact, the North Dakota State University Agriculture and University Extension emphasizes that art is essential during childhood to help improve memory, cognition and emotional knowledge [source: NDSU]. 

The brain needs constant stimulation to stay active. Stop giving it novel or surprising activities to deal with and it will simply slow down and age faster. To be more effective, the learning must be challenging -- make it too easy on yourself and the effort required won't do much for your brain fitness. Once something gets easy, punch it up a level. Keep it new and interesting, but also make sure the activity itself is rewarding. If you're always frustrated, you'll end up stressed.

Creativity is good for stress and your brain. Plus, learning a new creative skill makes you feel confident and helps take care of tough gift decisions.

7. Get a Good Night's Sleep

Sleep less, get … dumber? Well, something like that. Researchers have long known that performance on tests and activities improves after sleep. Experts are now discovering that sleep has a much more powerful influence on our intelligence than we first thought. Sleeping (or lack of sleep) can affect three types of memory: procedural (how to do something), declarative (remembering details and key information) and episodic (remembering events from your own life) [source: Newsweek].

Sleep deprivation not only makes it harder to remember things you already know, it also makes it more difficult to process new information. So if somebody gives you his or her phone number when you're exhausted and sleep deprived, you're a lot less likely to remember it than if you are well rested. Oh, and people who are sleep deprived have higher levels of cortisone (the stress hormone) in their bodies.

There is "no magic number" when it comes to the length of hours of sleep you need to improve brain function. The National Sleep Foundation recommends between 7 and 9 hours of sleep for adults, but you might need more or less, depending on your own rhythm. It might be worth it to try different patterns to see what leaves you the most rested. Sleeping too much can leave you feeling as "off" as sleeping too little, so you need to find your own balance.

Can MRI and PET scans show us how the brain functions?

High-tech imaging techniques like MRI and PET scans have allowed scientists to actually see what happens in the brain when you're involved in a particular task. When your brain is stimulated, your neurons become active with a series of electric reactions. Experts can see how those reactions affect the brain, how learning occurs and what part of the brain is used for each type of activity.

8. Take Vitamins and Special Supplements

There’s a lot of controversy regarding the use of herbs and supplements to enhance memory or improve brain function. Because herbs are not regulated by the FDA, studies on their efficacy are independent and not conducted on every single supplement on the market. According to many experts, however, two key supplements can help your brain. One is ginkgo biloba. Although not all studies agree on the specifics of how the herb works, ginkgo seems to enhance memory in older adults, help treat dementia, improve blood flow to the brain and enhance cognitive function [source: University of Maryland Medical Center].

The second “brain supplement” is folic acid. Folic acid is actually used to treat brain damage and plays an important role in mental health. Studies have shown that people with low levels of folic acid are likely to experience deeper levels of depression. What’s more important, up to 38 percent of people who are depressed have low levels of folic acid in their bodies [source:University of Maryland Medical Center].

9. Eat Better

According to Steven Pratt, MD, author of "Superfoods Rx: Fourteen Foods Proven to Change Your Life," some foods can protect your body and your brain from the cumulative stress of aging or dealing with everyday hazards. One of these foods is the blueberry. Blueberries seem to protect the brain from oxidative stress and might improve learning capacity [source: Science Daily]. Wild salmon is another "brain food." Because it's rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, it can help transmit brain signals, which means a big boost for the health of your brain [source:Natural News].

Nuts and seeds also are good brain foods because of their high vitamin E content; vitamin E is essential to maintain cognitive function as you age. Avocados, beans and pomegranate juice can also help keep your brain in shape by lowering blood pressure (which helps keep cognitive abilities in top shape), maintaining good levels of energy and providing potent antioxidant benefits.

The best news? You can end the day with a cup of freshly brewed tea and 1 ounce of dark chocolate to keep you focused and improve your mood.

Blueberries are more than fresh and delicious; they're brain food. They're packed with antioxidants, which may improve your learning capacity.

10. Reduce Stress

Everybody's had those moments. You have a million things on your mind, a long to-do list, things to mail or deliver and tons of stuff to buy. You pack everything you need and step out of the door, only to realize you forgot your car keys, the essential piece to get going. When you're stressed and overwhelmed, your brain has a harder time remembering the most basic tasks.

Memory works by repetition. Need to remember a name or a phone number? Chances are you'll repeat it to yourself a few times to imprint the information in your brain. This is usually an effective method, except when stress enters the picture. Stress is like white noise, a wave of interference that interrupts the normal process that helps you remember. When you're stressed, your thoughts are racing and your memory becomes selective. You only remember things that your brain believes are essential to your survival. Forgot the keys to your car? That might be your brain telling you it needs a break [source: Hôpital Louis-H. Lafontaine].

So the next time you feel stressed, take a break. Spend some time outdoors walking your dog or have lunch with a friend. Or take a long bath with some scented candles to light the room. To manage stress over time, consider keeping a journal. It will help you identify what triggers your stress response so you can find better ways to deal with it.

The Effect of Neurofeedback on the Brain

Neurofeedback is a form of "brain training" that allows you to directly connect physical and mental reactions so you can change them. Anxiety, depression, memory problems, cognitive dysfunction and sleep disturbances, all start in the brain but directly affect your body. By learning to recognize the physical side of a disorder, you can retrain your brain to deal with it. [source: Biofeedback Zone].