Exerciseyour brain

By Alan Koenigsberg, M.D.

We welcome summer later this week, so I’m sure many people especially those of us who are older, are now more hesitant to exercise outside. Whether that’s bicycling, walking, jogging, running or just going to the park, when the temperature hits triple digits and the humidity is high, being outside is uncomfortable, let alone exercising in the heat.

However, this article is intended to discuss another kind of exercise, that may be even more relevant to those of us who are getting on in years.

Brain exercises!

As children, we are constantly learning new stuff … how to read, how to write, grammar, learning a new language, sports, musical instruments and skills. Once we become adults, however, we tend to settle into a groove of what we are accustomed to, and learning new stuff tends to diminish markedly.

We have established a rather large foundation of knowledge and skills, and can often continue fairly well by repeating what we know. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it does stifle growth.

Even if we do learn new information, as I do when reading my medical journals, they tend to be adding on to the foundation of what I learned decades ago. So, while it is new information, I’m really not learning a new skill or radically different information.

I don’t think many of us decide to learn a new language just to keep ourselves sharp. Or learn a musical instrument. Or take new roads to work, just to experience novel circumstances.

I’m suggesting here that one way to help our brains and minds last well into our later years may be not only to be life-long learners, but to learn new concepts and new skills as well.

In order for learning to be effective, we need to choose challenging, complex skills and practice them regularly. This may indeed be hard work. One way I like to think about these challenges is that we need to choose which hard path we want to travel. 

One hard path is to do little, which is easy up front, but may result in illness later. The other hard path may be harder up front, but results in healthier and longer living.

Reading and doing crosswords is often fun, enjoyable and rewarding, and I do them regularly. However, they are not particularly complex, challenging or require much practice.

Learning a new skill such as golfing, computer programming, digital photography, cooking science, quantum physics are examples of those kinds of activities that require a lot of concentration.

One last thought would be focused weight training. While obviously a physical exercise, it can actually work both the brain and the body. 

Working out at a gym is fine and offers a wide range of exercises.

Working out at home offers the ability to work for just a few minutes and get an excellent workout. A barbell with a few weights can accomplish quite a lot.

For example, when doing a bench press, I am totally focused on raising the bar and lowering it slowly. This requires total concentration, which causes enormous firing of brain neurons to accomplish this. This activity strengthens brain function.

The same goes for squats, pushups, pullups, dead lifts, military press and other challenging exercises.

Just a few exercises with a barbell can provide an excellent source of brain and body exercise. It also helps provide muscle growth, which tends to diminish with age. 

Weight training as we get older may be one of the best exercises we can do. In order to profit from this exercise, we need to fully focus on the process.

Go forth and be healthy!

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