New Year, New Brain: 11 Exercises To Sharpen Your Mind

Written by Lisa Wimberger

CrossFit might be the latest fitness craze sweeping the nation, but there's one area of your body that historically hasn't received a lot of attention, although that's starting to change. Apps and games that are supposed to help you "train your brain" are becoming increasingly trendy as users try to maintain (or exceed) their capacity to learn and remember.

Well, you don't need a special app, book or program to train your brain. Some basic understanding about how the brain works — and how it functions at its very highest capacity — is enough to help you keep those wits sharp. If you're pressed for time and need a quick pick-me-up, any of these tips should help get you back on track (and the more you can manage, the better!).

1. Eat right, every day.

Sugar might give you a short bump of energy, but it won't help you think any more clearly and you will crash and burn after that bump has passed. Protein and healthy fats are much more to your brain's liking than fueling predominantly on sugars, and there's no more important time to feed your brain than first thing in the morning. So serve up eggs, blueberries, avocado and other "brain foods" for breakfast.

2. Stay out of the stress-response cycle.

Your brain excels at detecting danger — after all, if that weren't the case your ancestors wouldn't have survived very long! But in today's world, our brains are too good at detecting danger that isn't actually there. It's not good for you to live in the stress-response cycle where your brain and body are constantly primed for whatever "danger" is lurking beyond the bend, because that "danger" isn't real. Keep those stress hormones out of your bloodstream by refusing to become engaged when the cycle starts up.

3. Engage in problem-solving puzzles.

These puzzles help engage the prefrontal cortex, the area of your brain involved in empathy, higher learning and, of course, problem-solving. Spending a little time every day on a puzzle that requires you to enter your prefrontal cortex, whether it's a Sudoku or a simple jump-the-peg board game, is great for brain health.

4. Learn a new skill or a hobby.

It's the perfect time of year to start taking on new things, and learning a new skill or a hobby is a brain exercise in and of itself. When you're learning something new, different areas of your brain are activated and those areas will keep you out of the stress-response cycle simply by virtue of being activated! You're never too old to learn to play the piano, practice your keyboarding or take up gardening; in fact, you'll keep your brain young by teaching it new tricks.

5. Listen to new and different music.

You might have music lurking in your library that you've never listened to before and now's the time to dig it out and dig in. The prefrontal cortex adores music, especially new and novel music that it can't easily predict. You'll find you're more alert and focused if you mix up your tunes.

6. Use your non-dominant hand for daily exercises.

Practice answering the phone, brushing your teeth or performing another task you do every day without thinking about it, but with your non-dominant hand. By practicing like this, you're triggering your prefrontal cortex and building neurons that appreciate the new and novel.

7. Move items around in your workspace.

There are things you use every day, whether you're a banker or a stay-at-home parent; you probably just have to think about them and your body begins to remember patterns. If you move some of these items around, each time you reach for them you'll will be forced to pause and re-assess for a brief moment. This brings activity to the front of the brain and is a form of cognitive exercise. A sense of novelty can do wonders for brain performance.

8. Breathe deep in your belly.

There's a reason why this one always shows up on lists: It's effective! Breathe deeply, counting your breaths. By the time you get to ten, any stress response you've triggered will likely be dissipated and you'll be back in the learning and empathetic area of your brain once again.

9. Journal.

Write out one to three pages in a notebook every morning when you wake up. It doesn't matter what the pages say, but there's something about a brain dump first thing in the morning that clears your plate and cleanses your palate for the rest of the day.

10. Speak in the "I can" rather than the "I can't."

When you find yourself thinking about your limitations, reframe them as possibilities. For example, instead of dwelling on how little money is in your bank account, focus on the aspects of the situation you can control: "I can start shopping once a week from a list and make more meals instead of eating out." "I can ask the person from work who lives in my neighborhood if they want to carpool." "I can negotiate a lower monthly student loan payment." If you can't think of anything to focus on, then simply practice on using a statement of possibility: "I wonder what this situation will bring into my life."

11. Shake to bring your central nervous system back to homeostasis.

If you do slip into the stress-response cycle, give yourself a shake after you realize what you're doing and stop yourself. Ever been in a car accident? There's a reason why you literally shake after a high-intensity moment like that — it's your body's way of ridding your muscles and brain cells of the stress hormones that have accumulated from your real (or imagined) brush with death. You can replicate that effect by shaking yourself!

When you take time to do just one or two of these mini brain boosters every day, you'll be surprised by how much sharper and more focused you feel. Add more than one, and your brain just might be in the best shape of its life!

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