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Brain Gains

Stronger, Faster and more Flexible

It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Did you catch all of that?

While the jumbled statement is not 100 percent true (the trick depends on which words are used) our brain is very good at doing a lot of stuff we don’t train it to do. That’s because our brain has plasticity – kind of how muscles have flexibility.

Brain as a Muscle

Technically our brain is not a muscle; it’s an organ. It has very specific purposes (like thinking and directing other organs), but it does act like a muscle – meaning the more we work it out, the better it gets.

Have you ever been driving somewhere, reached your destination and not remembered half the drive?

When we learn something new, the brain builds pathways between the knowledge needed to complete the task and subsequent actions. When we do something over and over again, like driving the same way to work every day, that neural pathway gets reinforced (like a muscle getting bigger, stronger) and it becomes automatic. 

That’s why if you want to become good at something, you practice again and again until it’s second nature. You’re basically doing reps to strengthen your skills and knowledge.

Work It Out

Working out the brain is much like working out your body – you can’t do one exercise to strengthen the entire thing. There are specific exercises you can do to help improve memory, sharpen reasoning skills, increase focus and regain capabilities after an injury.

You also can’t stop working out.

While there are some brain activities that are like riding a bicycle (never really forgotten), most capabilities (whether it’s increased short-term memory or speaking a new language) are lost if we don’t keep that pathway active. Think about how much Spanish/German/French you remember from high school. Unless you’ve used it since … you’ve lost most of it.

Studies show the best way to keep a skill strong is to build it up and work it out regularly.

When it comes to muscles, we work out for strength, endurance, flexibility or all three. We realize it is part of an overall healthy lifestyle so we also eat healthy and drink more water.

Keep your brain active and healthy with regular exercises that make you think: read a book, play strategy games, work with numbers or just have a great conversation. These basic activities help ward off memory deterioration in old age.

As for improving memory, problem-solving skills, reasoning or other basic functions, there are brain-flexing games at Lumosity.com. Multiple studies have shown that these games do strengthen those pathways and may have some long-lasting benefits (when completed regularly).

Don’t Skip the Gym

Another way to work out your mind is to … work out. Regular exercise has been shown to increase new brain cells (to create those pathways), improve memory and thinking skills and reduce anxiety and depression so it’s easier for you to concentrate.

These benefits mostly seem to come from cardiovascular exercises, so it’s less about building strength and more about getting your blood pumping. Eating healthy brain foods (blueberries, avocados, wild salmon, nuts and seeds) and getting a good night’s sleep also help the brain operate at its highest performance level.

Thus, if you’re already taking care of your body, you are taking care of your brain. Just remember not to skip your brain games. •

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