LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates Smart Behavior

Aerobics for the Brain

It seemed to be happening more often. Perhaps I was simply paying more attention to frustrating incidences, I'd walked into a room and couldn't remember what I was doing there. Additionally, I was becoming more obsessive-compulsive about where I put my car keys or how I stored and retrieved the equipment I use to assess a client or where I left my cell phone. Failure to do so could result in confusion as I attempted to go about daily life habits.

As we Leisure World residents move into our senior years, conversations with friends lead me to believe others are sharing my experience. We seem to be spending more time and attention to experiences similar to what I describe above or what we jokingly describe as defending our "senior moments."

This "predicament" sent me deeper into reading what other's thought about these "senior moments." I soon discovered that my penchant for predictably doing the same thing in the same order left little chance for my brain to be stimulated by a new experience. As a result,I have had a change of heart (or thought). I have discovered Neurobics.

Neurobics is a unique brain exercise program that is designed to (help) keep the brain agile and healthy. The word itself is a deliberate allusion to physical exercise. Just as physical exercise emphasizes using many different muscle groups to enhance coordination and flexibility, the ideal brain exercises involve activating many different brain areas, in novel ways, to increase the range of mental motion. For example, an exercise like swimming makes the body more fit overall and capable of taking on any exercise. Similarly, Neurobics makes the brain more agile and flexible overall so it can take on mental challenges whether they are memory, task, performance or creativity.

Neurobics calls for presenting the brain with non-routine experiences using various combinations of our physical senses-vision, smell, touch, taste and hearing—as well as our emotional "sense." It stimulates patterns of neural activity that create more connection between different brain areas. It:

  1. involves one or more of our senses in a novel context
  2. involves one or more of our senses in a novel context
  3. breaks a routine activity in an unexpected, non-trivial way.

I started with an activity that I hoped would engage all three. I call it “Brushing Roulette.” First thing in the morning I brushed my teeth with my non-dominant hand (including opening and applying the toothpaste). Eventually I began drying my hair using that non-dominant hand. Other activities might include using that non-dominant hand for shaving, applying makeup, styling your hair, buttoning clothes, eating or using the TV remote.

As time passed I attempted to adopt other suggestions I found as I read about Neurobics on line. To enhance my hearing acuity I spent a few hours wearing a pair of earplugs during a family dinner to experience the world with dimmed sound.

Assuring my balance was good; I took a shower with my eyes closed. I had to locate the spigots and adjust the water using only tactile senses. My fingers stumbled as I attempted to locate all the necessary shower products by feel then washed with my eyes shut. I laughed.

Another "exercise" included reading aloud. I changed my voice to suit the dialog of each character. It seemed silly (my cat refused his usual habit of sitting by my side) and was a slower read, but I found it relaxing to so fully engage myself in the pleasure of reading.

I was soon referred to the book, Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness. It was written by Dr. Lawrence Katz, a professor of Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and Manning Rubin, author of 60 Ways to Relieve Stress in 60 Seconds (another great read).

The authors describe the learning process in this way: "when you exercise the brain, you release natural growth factors called neurotrophins, which in turn enhance the brain’s level of fitness….nothing so easily stimulates the brain as breaking routines and using the five senses in new and unexpected ways."

Once I bought into the now well-researched concept synchronicity prevailed. popped up on my computer. A visit to Costco yielded versions #1 and #2 of spiral bound Brain Games: Lower your Brain Age in Minutes a Day. These books of puzzles, as promised, provided a vigorous mental workout. Whether true or not, these new activities seemed to increase my memory, sharpen my reasoning and expand my creative thinking. (Sadly it didn't alleviate my lifelong challenge of living with ADD.)

I believe our brain hungers for novelty and new information coming from the outside world—especially the stimulation that occurs from doing things differently. I hope you, too, will add aerobics for your brain to the aerobics I also encourage for your body. It’s sure to enhance living well for as long as we live.

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LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates
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