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University of Illinois Extension

Are You Exercising Your Brain?

January 3, 2013

When someone asks you to think about health, wellness, and fitness, you usually think about physical health, exercise, or nutrition. But, as you age, you should also work on your cognitive or brain health.

Our cognitive health can be described as the ability to think, reason, and remember. As we age, like the rest of our bodies, our brains slow down and become less flexible and accurate.

There are a few things you can do to maintain a healthy brain. Getting enough good, high-quality sleep is important, along with eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly. What's good for the heart is good for the brain! Also, lowering stress levels and keeping solid social connections and support contribute to achieving good brain health.

Researchers agree that challenging your brain daily is also beneficial and necessary to maintain brain health and delay cognitive decline as we get older. We need to challenge our brains with many different activities. It is essential to reach beyond what is comfortable and try new exercises and activities that are interesting, varied, and make us think a little more.

If an activity becomes too easy, we aren't really exercising anymore. Adjust the level of difficulty until you feel challenged again. If you enjoy seek-a-word puzzles and have done so many that they are becomong very easy to do, try doing a different variety of puzzle, like finding the words spelled backwards, or switch to finding number sequences instead. You may want to switch to something totally new like Sudoku or crossword puzzles.

Variety is also key because the brain has many different areas to keep fit. Just as we wouldn't be considered physically fit if we exercised only our legs, we can't achieve total brain health if we focus on only one area, such as short-term memory. We also have to exercise critical thinking, spatial reasoning, and long-term memory.

Do you have to take a class to practice brain fitness? Absolutely not! There are many ways to practice brain fitness, including: board games or cards; crossword or number puzzles; dancing; jigsaw puzzles; reading; traveling; journaling; woodworking or other hobbies; or conversing.

You're never too old to get started, but the earlier you begin the better. Start your brain workout right away!

For more information on this topic or other family-life-related topics, contact Cara Allen at 309-837-3939 or at cballn@illinois.edu.

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