We run (OK fine…jog) to keep our legs in shape. We sweat through Pilates classes to tone our core. But are we neglecting to exercise one of the body’s most important parts—our brain? Dr. Richard Carmona, the 17th surgeon general of the United States and chief of health innovation at wellness lifestyle brand Canyon Ranch, says yes. Here’s what you need to know about brain gyms—including how to make your own at home.
What Is a Brain Gym?
A brain gym is a collection of mental and physical exercises you practice regularly, and it’s kind of whatever you want it to be, Dr. Carmona tells us. Basically, though, it’s all about exercising your brain, whether that’s through doing crossword puzzles, learning a new language or something as simple as reading. Dr. Carmona tells us that while there are lots of companies out there selling products to improve brain health, you’re probably better off beefing up your library instead. “What we do know is that the brain needs to be constantly stimulated with diverse information in order to preserve and enhance cognitive ability through the life span," he says. "Reading is one of many important stimuli for cognitive health. Reading novels, biographies, or a wide array of personally interesting and stimulating topics have the potential to act as a ‘brain gym’ in giving the brain a workout.”
Why Is It Important to Spend Time Exercising Our Brains?
As we age, we’re susceptible to a loss of (or decline in) cognitive ability. If we exercise our brains every day, we have a better chance of preventing this decline—and potentially even enhancing cognition as we age. According to Dr. Carmona, we should be thinking about our brains daily, just the way we do with our other muscles: “If we don’t exercise our brains routinely, our brains will eventually atrophy like our muscles do from nonuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Who Can Benefit from a Brain Gym?
The short answer is: Everyone, from “young individuals whose brains are like sponges soaking up new information,” to “the senior who may be at risk from cognitive decline from aging or neural disease like Alzheimer’s.” Don’t wait until you’re at risk for cognitive decline to form habits that could help keep it at bay.
How Can You Set Up a Brain Gym at Home?
“The beauty of the brain gym concept,” Dr. Carmona tells us, “is that it is portable and is anything you want it to be.” To create your own, you could borrow out a book from the library on a topic that interests you, or you could download a language-learning app like Duolingo. Beyond reading and learning a new language, Dr. Carmona stresses that maintaining cognitive fitness is a part of an overall proactive approach to health. “We just have to make good, healthy, sustainable decisions every day, which, for most of us, may be our biggest challenge.”