10 habits that can make your brain stronger this year

Here’s how to make your brain part of your "get fit and healthy" plan.

Putting together a puzzle

Did you recently commit to a regular exercise plan? If so, congratulations, because you’re well on your way to a healthier body. But don’t forget about strengthening your brain health too!

No matter how old you are, you can improve brainpower by doing activities that are intensive, repetitive, and progressive. And it’s best if you learn new skills and work to master them! If you can train your brain to make decisions more quickly and accurately, you can get better at other everyday tasks.

These kinds of activities can also boost your learning, memory, and mood. What makes all this possible? Something called plasticity, which is literally the brain’s ability to change. The key is finding activities that:

  • Consistently require you to master new elements
  • Demand your attention
  • Make you feel rewarded

Ready to give your brain the workout it deserves? Here are 10 habits that will help keep your brain healthy every day of the year.

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Do a challenging jigsaw puzzle

The next rainy day, turn off the TV and pull out that jigsaw puzzle from the top of your closet. Make sure it has at least 500 pieces. Completing one like that requires you to heavily engage your visual processing system by:

  • Distinguishing between different shapes and colors
  • Rotating pieces around in your mind
  • Scanning for target pieces

It also engages the part of your brain that controls movement as you manipulate pieces in your hand and shift attention from the small piece to the (literal) big picture. Plus, jigsaw puzzles are fun, social projects to do with a group.

Go on a guided tour of a museum

When was the last time you visited a museum? Signing up for a guided tour at a museum can benefit your mental health, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pay careful attention to what the guide says. When you get home, try to reconstruct the tour by writing an outline that includes everything you remember. Research on brain plasticity shows that memory activities like this one can improve brain function by engaging all levels of brain operation, which include:

  • Receiving information
  • Remembering it
  • Thinking about it

You may be in a better mood after your museum outing too. The UPenn researchers found that museums — particularly art museums — are good at reducing anxiety and depression.

Work on your peripheral vision — outside

Have a favorite outdoor spot to people-watch? Try this brain activity while you’re enjoying the view. First, grab a park bench or café window seat, then follow these steps:

  1. Stare straight ahead and don’t move your eyes.
  2. Concentrate on everything you can see without moving your eyes, including in your peripheral vision.
  3. When you’ve finished, write a list of everything you saw.
  4. Try again and see if you can add to your list.

Stretching your ability to focus is good for the brain. Paying close attention like that encourages the brain to pump more acetylcholine (a brain chemical important for learning, attention, and memory). Acetylcholine tends to decline with age, so give it a little boost now.

Try BrainHQ’s brain exercises

Have you heard of brain training? One program that really works is BrainHQ. A team of leading brain scientists developed this online brain health program, which has been proven effective in hundreds of studies. These exercises can speed up thinking, sharpen focus, and improve memory. And you can do them on your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Bonus: Did you know that BrainHQ may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan? Check your eligibility today.

Learn a musical instrument

Maybe you’ve always wanted to pick up piano or violin but never gotten around to it. Now’s your chance to make sweet music — and give your brain the workout it needs.

Playing music calls on many brain functions, including:

  • Fine motor control
  • Highly attentive listening
  • Keeping the right rhythm, which helps you coordinate movement and timing
  • Translating written notes (sight) to music (movement and sound)

Plus, just think about all the fun you’ll have performing live for your friends and family.

Memorize a song

Let’s say you’re either a Beatles or a Stones person — but you don’t know every word to every song. Pick a favorite tune you’d like to memorize, press play on your listening device, and follow these steps:

  • Listen to the song as many times as necessary to write down all the lyrics.
  • Learn to sing along.
  • Once you’ve mastered one song, move on to another (joining the neighborhood garage band is optional!).

Here’s the thing: When you get better at careful listening, it helps strengthen your ability to understand, remember, and think.

Plus, memorizing a song requires you to pay closer attention and use your active memory. When you focus on the song, your brain releases acetylcholine, a chemical that enables brain plasticity and stimulates your memory.

Smiling women on a beach
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Turn down the volume on your TV

Next time you watch your favorite streaming series, try this experiment. Grab the remote and turn down the volume a little from where you normally have it.

If you concentrate hard enough, can you still follow what’s going on? Here’s why testing this can be good.

You may be turning up the volume on a show because the part of your brain that helps you process hearing is experiencing static or slower electrical activity. You can’t actually get rid of this brain static by turning up the volume — but you might do it anyway to make what’s being said louder. That only teaches your brain to need a louder signal.

Let’s say you try the lower-volume exercise, and you can follow along just fine. When it gets too easy, turn the volume down another notch. That will help retune your brain to listen to information at a more conversational tone.

Learn to use your “other” hand

Ever wonder what it’d be like to do activities with both your right and left hand? Try this brain exercise: Tonight, if you’re right-handed, use your left hand to brush your teeth (or if you’re a lefty, vice versa). Work your way up to more complex tasks such as:

  • Using a fork, knife, or spoon at your next meal
  • Using your computer mouse
  • Writing

These exercises take something you already know how to do and put them in a new and demanding context. Doing such an activity can drive large-scale brain plasticity. That’s because millions of neurons in your brain will have to adjust to establish better control of your “other” hand.

Take a walk on an uneven surface

This one may sound odd, but it makes sense when you think about it. Scientists believe that walking on uneven surfaces like a cobblestone street or a (moderate!) rocky hike can improve your balance.

How? Walking on uneven surfaces challenges the balance system in your inner ear in ways that improve its function. The result: better balance, which is key to preventing serious injuries.

This type of exercise, which combines body and mind, can even work as a treatment for adults who are recovering from a stroke.

Play more word games

This one might come in handy the next time you’re stuck in traffic or waiting at the doctor’s office. Give yourself five minutes to list as many words as you can from letters in a multisyllable word. For example, if your word is “memorize,” you might come up with:

  • Ire
  • Me
  • Memo
  • Mere
  • More
  • Zero

This type of exercise works on what psychologists call fluency, or your ability to find a word. Generating as many words as you can in a limited time challenges your brain to practice its word-finding skills in brief pauses. Many word games lack that time challenge aspect and have not been shown to improve fluency.

Bottom line: Even if you were planning on getting your body in shape for the new year, don’t forget about your brain. And these 10 tips are just the beginning. Check back soon for more brain-training activities to add to your list.

BrainHQ offers easy-to-use science-backed brain exercises to help improve your memory, attention and focus. And you may already have free access through your Medicare Advantage plan. Check now.

Additional sources
Fish and brain health study: Nutrients
Best omega-3-rich fish: Mayo Clinic
Museum study: Penn Today