You probably weren’t expecting this one — but the first way towards a healthy mind is a healthy body. Physical exercise can help your memory and brain stay sharp in more ways than one. The benefits can come both in the form of direct and indirect benefits. For instance, exercise can reduce insulin resistance, inflammation, and stimulate chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and blood vessels in the brain.
At the same time exercise improves mood and sleep, reducing stress and anxiety — all problems that can hamper brain activity. Many studies have found that parts of the brain that affect thinking and memory have a greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t.
A special mention for high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of cognitive decline. It’s not just being fit — having a healthy lifestyle also helps keep your brain in check. Having a healthy body weight, normal blood pressure, and avoiding alcohol and smoking all help.
It’s hard to say what exercise is best to improve your cognitive power. Some studies suggest that even walking briskly for two hours a week can help, thought standard recommendations advise half an hour of moderate physical activity at least 4-5 hours a week. But in truth, every bit helps, and even a few minutes a day can make a world of a difference. So if keeping an active brain the goal, the body is a good place to start.
The brain isn’t exactly a muscle, but it works like a muscle: the more you train it, the better it gets. Education — and by this, we don’t just mean school or university, but any form of organized learning — is crucial.
A higher level of education is associated with better cognitive ability in old age, and is also inversely correlated with problems like Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s not exactly clear how many years of education are required for the best cognitive results, but in general, the more, the better.
Embrace mental challenges
The link between brain games and cognitive ability remains unclear. Studies suggest that playing brain games alone won’t prevent dementia, but they can help in sharpening certain thinking skills such as planning skills, processing speed, and decision making.
Novelty is important. If you’re already good at one thing, you may really enjoy it, but your brain won’t be stimulated as much. You need to constantly learn new things and embrace new challenges to keep your brain sharp. It’s a bit like going to the gym: if all you do is dumbbell curls, you’ll have big arms, but you won’t necessarily be healthy. Luckily, regardless of what type of brain teaser you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it online, and maybe even free. There’s lichess for chess, Duolingo for new languages, unscramblex, a word unscrambler for word games, plus a million websites for puzzles. There’s an entire world of brain games out there just waiting to be explored.
Manage your social ties
There are multiple types of intelligence — and social intelligence is one of them. Maintaining an active social active may also help keep your brain in tip top shape.
Studies looking at brain connectivity during social interaction have found that our brains react strongly to social cues, suggesting that our social networks and interactions also help shape the brain. Besides, talking to people can make you feel better and loneliness, on the other hand, can increase the level of cortisol and the level of stress, which can hamper brain activity.
Find a hobby
As previously mentioned, diverse activities are excellent for keeping your brain active. But finding a hobby (or a few) helps in a different way. For starters, you’re much more inclined to do something if you enjoy it. Pursuing a hobby can improve your mental health, which in turn, can have positive effects on your cognitive ability.
If that hobby happens to have an intellectual component — even better. Although even something like gardening or yoga can help.
Eat well, sleep a lot
There’s no substitute for a good meal and a good night’s sleep. Staying fit and working out is essential, but if you don’t eat or sleep properly, you’ll be bound to suffer. Smoking and excessive drinking are major risk factor for dementia, as is a lack of sleep.
Eating a healthy diet (low in saturated fats and sugar, high in vegetables and fruits) and getting a good night’s sleep will help keep your brain active.
Care for your emotions
Lastly, we like to think of matters of brain and the heart as being separate, but they’re more intertwined than you’d think. Anxiety, depression, and exhaustion tend to take a toll on cognitive power, so make sure you also keep your emotional health in check.
Taking care of your mind isn’t a singular activity. You need a holistic approach that involves working out, a healthy diet, and good habits.
Alexandra is a naturalist who is firmly in love with our planet and the environment. When she's not writing about climate or animal rights, you can usually find her doing field research or reading the latest nutritional studies.