Exercise your brain: what can you do to give your mind a workout?

Brains. They are a bit of a mystery, even to neuroscientists. However, the connection between mind and body is an incredibly powerful one, even if the process isn’t completely understood. That’s why so many neuroscientists are to be found clad in running gear. Running, they tell us, quite literally makes us smarter. But did you know that it can also work the other way around? If you exercise your mind, it actually makes your body healthier. Sounds like hocus pocus? Read on and see.

Learning a new skill

Gardening is just one of many skills that requires a combination of concentration, repetition, planning, and problem-solving. Knitting, craftwork, and cooking all produce a similar neurobiological effect. These activities build and strengthen neural pathways, improving overall brain function. However, a remarkable additional effect is that they also force the brain into a state of mindfulness. This has a range of health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, and improving heart health. This isn’t just because activities such as gardening involve exercise, but mainly because the mental focus that is required sends the body into a state of healthy relaxation. The more effort that is put into learning a new skill, the more powerful the positive mental effect becomes.

But what about ‘serious’ learning?

Think of serious mental challenges, and games of logic spring to mind. Cryptic crosswords, chess, and poker are the forerunners. All of these work in a similar way. Poker, for instance, involves memorising complex strategies and rules that can be applied in order to predict how the game will unfold. Players also have to be able to perform complex mathematics involving probability and chance, and to apply multiple rules of logic. Difficult? Yes. However, all of these activities are learned through practice and repetition, and that’s where the secret lies. Learning how to play these mentally complex games builds neural pathways. Due to the constant repetition, these pathways are strengthened until they are hardwired. The result is a supercharged brain, with enhanced memory, concentration, and dexterity. However, one neural pathway that chess and poker players develop is emotional control. This can have a powerful physical effect: it reduces the physically damaging stress hormone cortisol.

Closing thoughts

When people think about exercise, they often forget that the brain also needs a good workout. Learning is not just something done by students, but something that the brain naturally wants and needs to do in order to keep the body healthy. Next time you’re wondering how to improve your gym workout, consider reaching for the chess set!