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Problem-solving is important to challenge the brain and maintain or even extend its neural pathways

One of the fastest-growing trends in the world today is brain training. Too many people don’t place enough emphasis on mental health and sharpness, instead preferring to focus on toning their abs and bulking up their shoulders. But it’s been proven by cognitive psychologists that our brains need just as much TLC and exercise as our bodies.

In fact, our minds are built to conserve energy and keep things as simple as possible. The biggest issue with this is that an unstimulated brain leads to fewer synapses between different parts of our brain and it doesn’t improve its resistance to degenerative brain conditions such as dementia – on the contrary, it makes us more susceptible to them.

Even as we enter middle age and towards our later years, our brains still have a plasticity that enables them to improve and be refined. Typically, as we begin to learn new skills, our brain builds new neural pathways and connections while also strengthening and breathing new life into existing pathways. Brain training can therefore help make your brain stronger, more durable and more adaptable to change. If you’re looking to alter your lifestyle for the better, consider the following exercises, hobbies and skills to sharpen the mind and bolster your intelligence in the process. From classic card games like poker to meditation, there is something for everyone.

Meditation is a healthy form of exercise for the brain

According to the EOC Institute, meditation exercises the brain in the same way that a gym class exercises the body. When you consider how an aerobic session helps to improve your body’s cardiovascular system, strengthening the heart and easing its workload to pump blood around your body, meditation can have a similar effect on the brain. By taking you into a meditative state, it helps to clear your mind, refocus and stay in control of your thoughts and feelings.

Regular meditation is more important to the brain than ad-hoc meditation. That’s because the brain has the capability to build upon the depths of the meditative state it has reached during previous sessions. The more sessions you partake in, the quicker and easier it will be for your brain to reach a deeper, more fulfilling meditative state. Meditation also requires the same deep breathing techniques that are necessary with physical exercise, helping to accelerate the flow of oxygen in our body to muscles and tissues – including the brain.

Yoga can create a sense of wellbeing and self-control

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Kundalini yoga is proven to decelerate minor cognitive impairments

According to Jonathan Greenberg, a postdoctoral research fellow of the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, yoga is good for the mind as well as the body. Greenberg says that yoga is increasingly used “in the treatment of anxiety conditions, depression, insomnia, eating disorders, and others.”

Furthermore, another study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that yoga could improve the brain’s communication, memory, attention and mood just as well as brain training programs. A group of 29-year-olds with minor cognitive impairments that could potentially lead to dementia were given a mix of brain training exercises and a form of yoga called Kundalini. This yoga technique focuses solely on breathing exercises, posture and meditation.

The case for poker: problem-solving card games lead to improved cognitive scores

Research undertaken by the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center saw 329 people aged 60 years on average followed, all of whom were considered to have a greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s in the future. Each participant within the group was given an MRI scan and a string of cognitive exams. They were also asked what hobbies and interests they had. Interestingly, those who played games such as poker, chess and puzzles recorded better cognitive scores and had higher brain volume across all key brain regions.

Card games such as Texas Hold’em poker offer a plethora of benefits to those with cognitive deficiencies. Not only do players have to worry about their own poker hands and identify potential winning hands they can make, they also have to strategize and work out what hands their opponents are holding. Problem-solving in poker can also improve concentration levels and attention spans. Put simply, if you read any poker strategy guide, most will tell you that to succeed in poker you need to master your mind first. In the case of poker, there are various different ways to play, with several variants such as Omaha, 7 Card Stud and the classic Texas Hold’em and even video poker and other similar one-player versions.

Learning a second language accentuates cognitive behavior

There are many benefits to learning a new language. It might be to make you more employable in an industry overseas or you’re thinking of travelling to a particular country on a regular basis. Alternatively, becoming bilingual can also be a great feather in your cap if you are simply striving for the cognitive benefits it brings. Many decades ago, some believed that children brought up in bilingual households would have their cognitive development stunted. Today, it’s been proven that this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, learning a new language helps the brain to form fresh neural connections and generate new brain cells. All of which can aid an individual’s creativity, self-esteem and confidence.

Another study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, overseen by Dr. Thomas Bak, a lecturer at Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences also found that bilingual young adults improved their ability to ignore and filter out irrelevant stimuli. Dr. Bak believes that the main reason for this is that the brain’s ability to switch back and forth from one language to another – dubbed code-switching – makes it more in tune with auditory information, which is considered a measure of concentration.

We’re sure you’ve heard of the saying “use it or lose it”. Well, the same phrase is applicable to you and your brain. After the age of 25, our brain’s cognitive function is already on the decline. That might shock you. Obviously, for most of us, it won’t deteriorate severely overnight, but science shows that brain training exercises as well as thought-demanding hobbies such as learning languages or playing poker can be the difference between maintaining a fit and independent lifestyle and not. Try hard to push yourself and stay mentally active and you’ll certainly reap the rewards down the line. Keeping your brain challenged at all times helps it to operate at peak performance.