Practice Mental Calisthenics

I asked my friend Dennis why he's so optimistic about life and physically active at age 79. He regularly walks, hikes, exercises, and swim.

I asked my friend Dennis why he’s so optimistic about life and physically active at age 79. He regularly walks, hikes, exercises, and swims. After a late retirement, Dennis attended Simon Fraser University full time, graduating in 1994 with a BA in English and Sociology. His enjoyment of life is evident in his friendly, cheerful manner and willingness to converse on any subject. In answering my question, he drew on his experience in the British navy. “I always think of the final order a shipmaster calls down to the engine room before the ship sails on a long voyage. When he calls ‘Full away’ no one knows what will happen on the voyage, what mysteries will unfold. They’re full away on a new voyage of discovery.”

Delight in the prospect of something wonderful just around the corner, enthusiasm for what is yet to come, and joy in the here and now make the process of life and aging pleasurable. It’s a belief that our world is a wonderful and an interesting place. Dennis sums it up this way, “Count your blessings, remain as active as possible, and be curious about everything.”

Dennis is right. Physical activity throughout life has been proven to determine better cognitive ability in participants compared with sedentary people of the same chronological age. Physically active people are less likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. They are also less likely to suffer mini-strokes that affect blood flow to the brain and can cause a type of dementia.

Dr. Sandra Cusack, a gerontology researcher at Simon Fraser University, and Wendy Thompson, an educational gerontologist and mental fitness trainer, claim that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. Authors of Mental Fitness for Life (Key Porter, 2003), Cusack and Thompson set out some of the latest research as seven steps to healthy aging:

  1. Set goals.
  2. Learn to think positively.
  3. Be creative.
  4. Be optimistic – it’s healthy.
  5. Believe we can all improve our memory and our capacity for learning.
  6. Speak your mind to promote change in ourselves and in the outside world.
  7. Take a risk – it pays off.

The authors provide a proven program to improve mental capability and joy of living. As Dr. Cusack points out, “The sooner we get on a personal mental fitness program, the more mentally fit we will be in the years to come.”

Reading is one of the best ways to exercise our imaginations, better than television, films, or radio. Playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, playing mental games and board games, and attending adult education classes can help to keep our minds alert and our memory strong and clear. Doing these activities often increases the likelihood we will remain mentally fit for life.

Practising mental calisthenics four times per week is more beneficial than once a week. Dr. Brian Levine, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, and the University of Toronto confirms that, “The brain is a dynamic organ. Connections among brain cells are constantly being modified. When you participate in mental activities, you are actually changing your brain. Mental activity throughout the lifespan has many rewards and costs nothing.”

Dr. Levine led a study of patients with strong recovery from traumatic brain injury and found that the brain can compensate for damage by engaging new systems to perform the same memory tasks. Assisted by Dr. Cheryl Grady, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto and one of the top minds in the field of neuroscience, Levine also observed compensatory activity going on in the frontal regions of healthy older adults similar to younger adults as both performed memory and recognition tests.

A positive attitude at any stage of life provides spiritual sparkle that inspires and refreshes those around us. Our love of life is evident when we are purposeful and passionate about it. The most important thing we can do for ourselves and those around us is to let go of society’s negative attitudes toward aging and exchange them for positives. We truly can remain mentally alert, joyful, and active throughout life.

Participate in a memory study that takes less than an hour to complete. To encourage healthy adults over the age of 25 to volunteer, Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care will donate to your favourite charity: testingmemory.org.

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