Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.
Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.
The Skinny on Mental Workouts
Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.
Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:
1. Improved Memory
After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.((ScienceDirect: Short-term cognitive training recapitulates hippocampal functional changes associated with one year of longitudinal skill development)) The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.
2. Reduced Stress Levels
Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.
3. Improved Work Performance
Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.
4. Delayed Cognitive Decline
As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.((American Psychological Association: Cognitive training slows cognitive decline, major study finds))
Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.
Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone
The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:
One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.
If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.
Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.((HealthLine: 8 Benefits of Dance)) Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.
3. Learning a New Language
Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.
With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.((Guru: What Is Knowledge Management?)) Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.
4. Developing a Hobby
Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.
If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.
Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.
Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.
5. Board Games
Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.
Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.
6. Card Games
Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.
A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.
Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.((National Center for Biotechnology Information: Visuospatial function in early Alzheimer’s disease: Preliminary study))
Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.
8. Playing Music
Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.
Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.
What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.
Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.
Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:
Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.
10. Deep Conversation
There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.
Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.
When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.
If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.
Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.
Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.
Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.
To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.
More Tips for Training Your Brain
11 Tactics on Increasing Brain Power, Memory, and Motivation
7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power
8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More