Posted: 5:34 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013

47 ways to boost brainpower

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TownLake YMCA takes yoga moves to the pool photo
Kate Winge, instructor of the aqua yoga class at the TownLake YMCA, strikes an underwater yoga pose after class.
Greatist.com photo
Greatist.com

By Shana Lebowitz

Greatist.com

Summer vacation is in full swing, but that's no reason to let the brain veg. To keep that noggin in tip-top shape, we've put together a list of new and creative ways to boost our brainpower, like golfing, mowing the lawn, and munching on pumpkin seeds. Read on for more easy ways to hit genius status pronto. 

Fitness

1. Aerobic Exercise: Read books, study hard — and do jumping jacks? There’s a ton of research on the link between exercise and cognitive function [1] [2]. And aerobic exercise seems like an especially great way to make it to MENSA — one study showed adults’ brain-processing speed improved after half an hour of moderate exercise. Do the brain a favor and get moving!

2. Listening to Music While Exercising: Pitbull, Lady Gaga, or old-school Madonna, pumping up the jams while working out can improve cognitive functions. In one study, cardiovascular rehabilitation patients who exercised to music performed better on a test of verbal fluency than those who worked out sans tunes [3]. Or maybe just waltz your way through a workout — other studies suggest listening to classical music can improve spatial processing and linguistic abilities [4]. A way to work the brain and the muscles? Now that’s music to our ears.

3. Strength Training: Bulk up the brain and hit the weight room.Research suggests strength training not only builds strong muscles and bones — it can also boost cognitive functioning [5]. That’s because lifting weights may increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which controls the growth of nerve cells.

4. Dance: Bust a brain-boosting move on the dance floor this weekend. Research suggests dancing involves mental challenges like coordination and planning, and may protect against cognitive decline [6]Duh — has anyone ever done the Macarena?

5. Golf: Take it from Tiger and take a swing. A few rounds of golf may do more than just work out the arms [7]. One study found golfing causes structural changes in the parts of the brain associated with sensorimotor control. Get smart and hit the green.

6. Yoga: A math test or spelling bee may be the last thing on anyone’s mind during savasana. But research suggests yoga can improve mood and concentration, enhance cognitive performance, and even prevent cognitive decline in older adults [8]. Namaste, Einstein.

Daily Routine

7. A Good Night’s Sleep: Stay up all night studying or hit the hay? Slipping between the sheets might be the better option: For most people, a solid seven hours of sleep is important to maintain cognitive skills such as learning, concentration, and memory. One study even showed people who slept in on the weekends were sharper during the week [9]. Just don’t nod off during the meeting…

8. Power Naps: For those who didn’t quite catch enough Zzzs last night, a power nap may be just the thing to help stay focused. It’s unclear how long the nap should last — in one study, young adults who napped for 90 minutes showed significant improvements in memory. But other research suggests even naps that last a few minutes can increase alertness [10]. On the other hand, some scientists say naps only improve memory if they involve dreaming.

9. Breaking a Routine: If the barista at the local coffee shop knows what “I’ll have the usual” means, it might be time to change that routine.Adding a twist to the day keeps the brain on its toes — try wearing a watch upside down or brushing your teeth with a non-dominant hand.

Relationships

17. Sex: Let’s get it on — our brainpower, that is. Research suggests sex can actually improve cognitive skills. A tumble between the sheets raises levels of serotonin, which boosts creativity and logical decision-making, and the hormone oxytocin, related to problem-solving ability (skills that might help with figuring out where those undergarments ended up last night…) [12].

18. Positive Relationships: I get by — and smart! — with a little help from my friends. A study of elderly Americans suggests positive relationships can help protect against memory loss [13]. Spend some time with friends and fam today to avoid forgetting their names later in life.

19. Pleasant Conversation: Oh, how do you do? A quick chat may do more than just pass the time — socializing can also improve cognitive functioning [14]. Even simple conversations may improve skills like memory and the brain’s ability to block out distractions. Take a few minutes to talk it out before the next big test or meeting.

Relaxation/Recreation

22. Meditation: Who can think clearly with a mind full of worries? If the ability to sit still and silent for more than 10 seconds isn’t impressive enough, get this: Meditation helps improve memory, decision making, and attention span [17] [18]. Plus the more you practice meditation, the better you get at making decisions. Start off with a few minutes of meditative belly breathing to improve concentration. Om-my.

23. Video Games: Guys who hang out in their basements playing Xbox games aren’t just supercool — they may also be smarter than the rest of us. Some researchers suggest playing video games improves a number of cognitive skills, from vision to multitasking to spatial cognition [19]. Tackle a game of Tetris for some mental exercise.

24. Watching TV: Turns out the tube may not be so terrible. One study found people who watched a half-hour TV show performed better on intelligence tests than people who listened to classical music, worked on crossword puzzles, or read books. Researchers suggest a small amount of TV might help people relax more than other activities. But make sure to keep viewing time to a minimum — a permanent butt-print on the couch is never a good sign.

Food and Drink

26. Staying Hydrated: Water, water everywhere and... the mind gets sharper.  Hydration is essential to keep the brain working properly, andresearch suggests being thirsty can distract us from the cognitive tasks we're trying to tackle. One study showed people who drank fruit and vegetable juice (yes, V8 in a Bloody Mary counts) were significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who didn’t [21]. For those looking to cut calories, eight glasses of water per day may work, too.

27. Omega-3s: Nope, it’s not the name of a frat — these fatty acidsprovide a ton of health benefits, like improving brain function [22]Greatist superfood salmon’s a top source of omega-3s — or forgo the eau de fish and try walnuts and flaxseed oil instead.

28. Spices: People of the world, spice up your brain! Research suggestscertain spices can help preserve memory [23]. A spoonful of cinnamon in acup o’ Joe can ward off Alzheimer’s disease, and a sprinkling of sage on pasta may prevent another WTF-is-that-guy’s-name situation. Cumin and cilantro are especially powerful memory-boosters — so chow down and make those trips to Mumbai and Cancun unforgettable.

Learning/Creativity

42. Novelty: A Sudoku puzzle might be challenging, but after the 100thpuzzle, the brain craves something new. Trying new activities stimulates the release of dopamine, which increases motivation and the growth of new neurons. So take an unfamiliar route home or read a book about a new topic, and feel the brain grow!

43. Navigating Cities: How did the man inside the GPS get so smart? Probably from spending time navigating cities. In one study, London taxi drivers showed structural changes in the part of the brain associated with spatial memory [39]. Copy Columbus and practice creating a mental map of the neighborhood.

44. Playing an Instrument: Play that funky music, smart guy. The parts of the brain responsible for motor control, hearing, and visuospatial skills may be more developed in musicians than in non-musicians [40]. Practice scales on a keyboard, chords on a guitar, or do what you want and just bang on the drum all day.

45. Speaking Out Loud: Better recite this tip to whomever’s sitting next to you. There’s evidence that we remember ideas better when we speak them out loud [41]. No guarantees it won’t look strange when you talk to yourself on the street.

To read the missing numbers and see the full list of 47 ways to boost brainpower, go to Greatist.com.

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