A few of my friends have asked me about brain exercises. Even though physical exercise will make you “smarter,” and strength training will improve your mind, brain exercise, on its own (or as an adjunct to a physical work out) is still very important. The New York Times often has articles on the power of exercising the brain, as do other publications.
This is a great primer on brain fitness. Many such articles focus on the brain needing novel experiences and learning in order to protect and exercise the brain. Habits and being “set in our ways” apparently sabotage this process. Vary your schedule, take a different route home, do things with your non-dominant hand, learn a new instrument or language, read philosophy you disagree with or know nothing about, etc.
Performing / learning Improv has been my favorite (and toughest) form of brain exercise for the past year. Nothing has mentally challenged me more, and I am better able to concentrate, remember things, and recall words and phrases that used to elude me. I highly recommend taking a class, because of how useful improv skills are in every day life. Performing is the most intense form of the challenge (at least for me), but there are classes that just provide an introduction and don’t require a performance. Speaking of improv, some of the exercises in Mick Napier’s book “Improv: Scene from the Inside Out” were a great mental work out.
When I want a tough work out, I make up strange multi-sensory challenges. Reading the Economist when listening to “challenging” music and singing along to it in an active environment (like the subway) felt like it got my brain moving. Also, trying to do simple, but challenging math problems in my head while smelling a crazy array of spices and feeling different textures was also good (and definitely indicates a certain level of insanity, I think). I also like to do some of the brain exercises while I am actually working out (or shortly after). I think there’s a benefit to doing this while you are enjoying a peak level of oxygen uptake and your circulation is going full steam. I’ve listened to mandarin instruction podcasts while on the elliptical,and recite my favorite poems while listening to music that is particularly distracting. When there’s no one in the steam room, I do improv exercises and do karate moves (don’t tell anybody).
I don’t think any of this stuff has made me any smarter, but it made me a little quicker and I’m confident it will at least delay (if not keep away) future mental decline.