Play the brain game

By Kim O’Hare

Much has been written about the benefits of physical fitness, but what about mental fitness. Are there exercises we can do that keep our minds running as smoothly as our bodies? pictureWe’ve long known about the decline in mental abilities believed to be associated with aging. We’ve all witnessed memory loss, sluggish thinking, difficulties in problem solving as friends and relatives age. But research suggests these are not inevitable if the brain remains challenged. Major studies on aging over the past 25 years support the findings that mental decline with aging is not inevitable.

The same advice we follow to achieve physical fitness applies to mental fitness, use it or lose it. Just as jogging or taking part in sports help maintain the body, mental exercises strengthen and maintain cognitive function.

Monique Le Poncin, founder of the French National Institute for Research on the Prevention of Cerebral Aging, has written a fascinating book called Brain Fitness. By identifying the various mental abilities in the human repertoire; perception, long and short-term memory, visual-spatial logic, and verbal abilities, she has “prescribed” an exercise regimen designed to strengthen those areas that tend to become weak over the lifespan.

As with other forms of fitness, the goal of brain fitness is to improve and maintain mental abilities before they slow down. It is not about becoming a mental Olympian. It is about taking care of what you already have. By repeating the brain exercises over several weeks time, real progress can be seen in a relatively short time. Unlike physical exercises, these ones don’t leave you all sweaty and you can do them on your lunch break, while commuting or just about anytime.  If you vary the exercises, and keep a daily record, you’ll be able to focus your efforts on specific areas. 

Sight & Memory: Every day, take a few minutes to observe a photo or a picture in a magazine. Then without referring to the picture again, immediately try to sketch it. This will exercise your short term memory. At the end of the week, redraw each image, to exercises longer-term memory.

Smell & Taste:When having a meal, try to identify all the ingredients, concentraing on subtle herbs and spices. Read the label or ask the person who cooked to verify your observations.

Memory: As you are going through the grocery checkout, try to memorise the list of items and their prices. On the way home, try to recite the list. Typically, people can remember about seven random, unrelated objects – see if you can improve this statistic. Instead of relying on the phone book in your cell phone, try memorising your friends’ numbers.

Touch: Count the coins in your pocket just by touch, without looking at them. Then verify the tally.

Visual-Spatial Skills: When at home, draw a sketch of your office or place of work. Take a break at work and sketch one of the rooms in your house.

Structuralization: This involves building a logical whole from disparate elements.  Take a sentence from a magazine or newspaper and then try to make another sentence using the same words.

Logic is the art of reasoning, finding an orderly sequence for disparate elements. Try doing away with your grocery list. Instead, as you shop, mentally go through your kitchen cupboards, creating the shopping list mentally. Also, strategy games such as chess or bridge are great for giving your logic skills a workout.

Develop a mentally-fit lifestyle. Le Poncin suggests you try to avoid monotony and routine in day to day tasks. By avoiding a set routine, you are forcing yourself to actively think about what you are doing, and what you are going to do next.  Monotony generates mental and emotional lethargy and resignation. Remember, failing memory and sluggish thinking are not the inevitable partners of aging. You have the ability to maximize your cognitive skills and enhance your older years.

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