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Brain Games

Using neurobics to keep sharp

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Brain Games

If you thought you got a full-body workout the last time you went to the gym, think again.

If you thought you got a full-body workout the last time you went to the gym, think again.

Are you having trouble remembering which aerobics class you took the other day? Then it may just be time to break the old workout routine and train your brain.

Just as regular exercise maintains muscle tone and strengthens the heart, the brain relies on daily activity to keep sharp. But you don’t have to get to a fitness centre or even break a sweat to stay cognitively healthy. Opportunities to train your brain can be found in everyday activities. All it takes is the use of your five senses to challenge your mind.

Cognitive exercise that involves sensory stimulation is called neurobics, and was introduced by Dr. Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin in the book Keep Your Brain Alive (Workman Publishing, 1999). Each of our five senses–sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell–maps onto specific areas of the brain that are activated by sensory input. These different areas need ongoing stimulation to minimize memory loss and maintain useful functions such as planning, problem solving, and critical thinking.

According to Dr. Myra Fernandes, a behavioural neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, our senses provide important cues for retrieving memories and information. “With increasing age,” she explains, “areas of the brain that are not used regularly are among the first to decline, resulting in a loss of functioning of the tasks associated with those particular regions.”

These changes occur gradually and begin as early as age 30. Although biological changes are inevitable, scientific evidence shows that cognitive exercise can help preserve the brain’s efficiency.

Incorporating neurobic exercises into your day can include any number of activities. According to Katz and Rubin, neurobics should involve one or more of your senses in a new task or should challenge you by breaking from a routine activity.

Come to Your Senses

An easy way to create a new sensory experience is by inhibiting one sense for a task and engaging others at a heightened level. For example, try eating a meal while blindfolded. Blocking visual stimulation will heighten your awareness of taste and aroma.

Combining sensory stimulation provides a different challenge that builds new associations between areas of the brain. Tune into the radio while watching a television program with the volume muted, or light a sweet-scented candle while you eat dessert.

Snap Out of a Routine

This is what makes neurobics far different from other exercises, where often the aim is to get into a “workout routine.” When exercising the brain, the objective is to change a routine enough so that your alertness is required to accomplish a task. Break the monotonous morning drive to work, for example, by changing your usual route, paying attention to new street names and signs.

Engage Your Brain

Incorporating neurobic exercises into your daily life can be accomplished quite easily. For a simple start, list some of the routine tasks you do every day and think of how you can alter these activities to exercise your mind.

Half the work of engaging in neurobics is coming up with the activities themselves! It requires some creativity, but opportunities for stimulating different sensory areas of your brain are endless.

So the next time you’re heading to the gym, tie your shoe laces with the opposite hand, swap the usual tunes on your headset for new music, and close your eyes as you guess the flavour of energy bar you’re munching on. This way half the workout is done before you’ve even walked out the door!

How to Rock Your Own Boat

  • Brush your teeth using your nondominant hand for a tactile workout.
  • Close your eyes while taking a shower. Use a variety of scented soaps and shampoos to stimulate your sense of smell.
  • Keep an assortment of tea bags in a container. Challenge your taste buds each morning by selecting one at random and guessing the flavour.
  • Read the newspaper out loud.
  • Relocate items on your desktop at work. Turn your clock upside down, or replace your mouse on the opposite side of the keyboard.
  • Pick up an item from the produce market that you’ve never tried.
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