15 Ways to Exercise Your Brain

Although most of us think of motor skills and cognitive skills as like oil and water, in fact a number of studies have found that refining your sensory-motor skills can bolster cognitive ones. No one knows exactly why, but it may be that the two brain systems are more interconnected than we realize. So learn to knit, or listen to classical music, or master juggling, and you may be raising your IQ.

1. Play words with friends

Research shows word puzzles can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, so don’t feel guilty whiling away time with the popular smartphone game.

2. Take Tae Kwon Do

Or dance. Or play squash. Look for an activity that raises your heart rate and requires a lot of coordination. Even homebodies should be able to find a brain-boosting sport with interactive-game technologies like Microsoft Kinect and Nintendo Wii Fit.

3. Download the TED app

The world’s greatest minds gather annually at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences to explore the cutting edge of issues like brain mapping and prenatal intelligence.

4. Learn a language

Mastering a second language gives a workout to your prefrontal cortex, which affects decision making and emotions. Enroll in a class or pick up Rosetta Stone software and teach yourself.

5. Eat yogurt

Probiotics are good for your stomach, but studies on mice suggest they are good for your brain, too: mice who ate them handled anxiety better and showed increased activity in sections of the brain handling emotions and memory.

6. Hydrate

Sure, every doctor and trainer tells you this, and we will too: dehydration forces the brain to work harder and may dampen its planning ability.

7. Check out Itunes U

Just because you don’t live in Princeton doesn’t mean you can’t audit an Ivy league course. Top-tier schools put their lectures online at iTunes U in everything from ancient philosophy to astrophysics.

8. Visit and art museum

Not only does it make you look smart, but viewing art has been shown to reduce stress, letting you focus on the things that really matter.

9. Play an instrument

Strum chords, tickle the ivories, play a jug. Learning an instrument boosts IQ and increases activity in parts of the brain controlling memory and coordination.

10. The pomodoro technique

This time-management method aims to make you productive using nothing more than a kitchen timer. Use it to help work in 25-minute blocks, taking a short break after each: the frequent rest aids mental agility.

11. Zone out

Let your mind wander. A string of studies suggest that zoning out, especially when you don’t consciously realize you’re doing it, allows the brain to work on important “big picture” thinking.

12. Delay gratification

Studies have found that children who were able to resist a marshmallow placed in front of them turned out, years later, to have higher SAT scores than students who snatched it up. The more successful children didn’t necessarily have a natural gift for patience; they controlled their attention by focusing on something else, like singing a song.

13. Become an expert

Master one task you really enjoy and your brain will perform more efficiently when you do it. Chess whizzes, for example, recognize patterns more quickly than amateurs. Expertise is not innate–practice does make perfect.

14. Write reviews online

Anyone can be a critic on the Internet–and you should too. When you like or hate something, review it on Amazon, Yelp, or other websites. Typing out your opinion will help you to better understand your own thinking.

15. Get out of town

Life in the city can drive you to distraction. Spending just a few minutes on a crowded street impairs memory and self-control, as your brain processes all the stimuli. So plan a weekend getaway; getting in touch with nature helps the brain to recover.

*** Excerpted from an article in NEWSWEEK. See the January 9; 16, 2012 issue for more information and ideas.