Would Your Brain Pass the Fitness Test?

Monday Mar 24 | BY |
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Brain Fitness

To keep your brain functioning optimally as you age, it’s important to adopt a brain fitness plan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the average life expectancy today is 78.7 years. More specifically, it’s 75.4 to 75.6 for men, and 80.4 to 80.6 for women.

Yet we start to lose our mental capacity about halfway through. In 2012, researchers reported that cognitive slips can start as early as age 45. After studying nearly 7,500 participants, scientists found that 45-49-year-olds showed a decline of nearly four percent on average in their cognitive capabilities.

By age 65, men’s cognitive performance declined by almost 10 percent, and women’s by 7.5 percent. Things like memory, problem-solving, decision-making, reasoning, and thinking speed all start to slow down—unless we do something about it.

It’s Time for a Brain Fitness Plan

There’s a new idea catching on—brain fitness. If you’re serious about maintaining your thinking and memory skills as well as your strength and aerobic capacities as you get older, you may want to think about creating your own daily brain fitness routine.

To help you get started, here are a few activities that have already shown in studies to help you retain and improve things like cognitive performance, blood flow to the brain, and expanded neuro-connections.

1. Exercise.

If you hate exercise, this will be bad news, but if you’re already engaged in a regular exercise program, you’ll be glad to know that it’s not only benefitting your body, but your brain as well. A large number of studies have shown that regular exercise not only delays and possibly prevents dementia, but can help you maintain memory and thinking skills. In January 2013, the Mayo Clinic stated that regular physical exercise is the most powerful tool available to prevent Alzheimer’s disease—and improve brain function in those who already have it.

Exercise also helps improve brain function. A 2013 study from the University of Texas reported that engaging in regular exercise helped aging adults improve their memory, brain health, and physical fitness.

2. Get enough downtime.

In our hectic, multi-tasking world, many of us are finding it more and more difficult to work in some down time. Plus, we think the more we concentrate, work hard, and keep our noses to the grindstone, the more we’ll get done.

Wrong, according to a number of scientific reports. In the fall of 2013, Scientific American stated that many important mental processes require what we call downtime and other forms of “brain rest” during the day. “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation,” the author states, “encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”

The New York Times agrees, noting that a growing body of evidence shows that “taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity—and that skipping breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion.” Like any other muscle, the brain needs both work and rest to function optimally.

The key is to get away from what you’re doing. Take a short walk, read a book in another room, take your lunch break (without working), call a friend, meditate, do a few stretches, listen to some music—the options are many. Choose those that help rejuvenate your thinking and you’ll work faster on the next project.

3. Limit the multi-tasking.

Many of us think we’re experts at this—getting two or three things done at once—but studies show that multi-tasking actually slows us down, and fatigues the brain.

Research shows that we’re exposed to three times more information today than we were forty years ago. So we try to do a number of things at once to get it all done. Yet evidence is mounting that multi-tasking is just plain bad for us, and actually slows down brain function.

A 1995 study, for example, found that when shifting from one task to another, they took more time to do the tasks than when they focused on one at a time. A second study found that participants lost time when switching between tasks—especially when the tasks became more complex. One of the study authors suggested that productivity could be reduced by as much as 40 percent by the mental blocks caused by switching tasks.

A 2009 study found that participants who spent less time simultaneously reading e-mail, surfing the web, talking on the phone and watching TV performed best on mental tasks. And a 2012 study found that people who are regularly bombarded by streams of electronic information “do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”

Finally, another recent study found that repeated distractions created by smart phones and social networks can sabotage overall mental performance and degrade short term, “working” memory.

The message? Focus on one task at a time for optimal brain fitness. Set specific times during the day to respond to emails and other social media, and learn where your “do not disturb” button is on your smart phone.

Do you have other tips for improving brain fitness? Please share your thoughts.

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Elizabeth Arias, National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 61, No. 3, September 24, 2012, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_03.pdf.

“Exercise Best Medicine to Prevent Alzheimer’s,” Mayo Clinic News Network, January 25, 2013, http://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/exercise-best-medicine-to-prevent-alzheimers.

“Study Finds Aerobic Exercise Improves Memory, Brain Function and Physical Fitness,” Center for Brain Health, November 12, 2013, http://www.brainhealth.utdallas.edu/blog_page/study-finds-aerobic-exercise-improves-memory-brain-function-and-physical-fi.

Ferris Jabr, “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” Scientific American, October 15, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/.

Phyllis Korkki, “To Stay on Schedule, Take a Break,” The New York Times, June 16, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/jobs/take-breaks-regularly-to-stay-on-schedule-workstation.html?_r=0.

Rogers, R. & Monsell, S. (1995). The costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124, 207-231.

Rubinstein, Joshua S.; Meyer, David E.; Evans, Jeffrey E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

Brandon Keim, “Multitasking Muddles Brains, Even When the Computer is Off,” Wired Science, August 24, 2009, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/multitasking/.

“Multitasking Might Be Damaging You,” Huffington Post, August 15, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/intent/multitasking_b_1776854.html.

Wesley C. Clapp, et al., “Deficit in switching between functional brain networks underlies the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults,” PNAS, 2011, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/04/04/1015297108#cited-by.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com


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  1. Many people are signing up for brain training when in fact they need less time on their computers – not more! I’d add meditation and sleep to the list. Meditation is like a vacation for your brain. Your brain needs sleep to repair and consolidate memories.

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