8 Ways to Exercise Your Brain

 This is a revised and condensed summary from our book How God Can Change Your Brain, and although it was published in 2009, the list remains the same.  There are, however, other essential “ingredients” for maintaining a healthy brain (like a high fat, super-low sugar diet) but the research remains unclear for most of them.  For example: doing crossword puzzles, taking supplements, and playing video brain-training games have been proven ineffective for making a noticeable difference in your cognitive skills (and those companies promoting brain enhancement are often heavily fined by the FDA).


The Eighth Best Way to Exercise Your Brain

Smile.  Even if you don’t feel like it, the mere act of smiling repetitively helps to interrupt mood disorders and strengthen the brain’s neural ability to maintain a positive outlook on life.[i] Even if you fake a smile, other people will respond to you with greater generosity and kindness.


The Seventh Best Way to Exercise Your Brain

Meditate.  I wish I could say that meditation and intensive prayer were #1, because that’s where much of my and Andy Newberg’s research has been focused, but being #7 is nothing to sneeze at (no, sneezing doesn’t help the brain and may even be a symptom of a rare cerebellar disorder[ii]).


The Sixth Best Way to Exercise Your Brain

Consciously relax. I’m not talking about taking a nap, or assuming the position of a couch-potato in front of a television set.  I’m talking about deliberately scanning each part of your body to reduce muscle tension and physical fatigue. And if you add pleasant music, your body will relax more quickly.[iii] Calming music, by the way, has been shown to sharpen your cognitive skills[iv] and improve your sense of spiritual well-being.[v]  By the way, if you don’t learn how to consciously relax, you’ll hinder the power of these other ways to enhance your brain.


The Fifth Best Way to Exercise Your Brain

Yawn.  Go ahead: laugh if you want (which is actually the 9th best way to exercise your brain!), but there are now over 40 studies documenting the power of a yawn.  These are just a few of the  neurological benefits of yawning:

  1. stimulates alertness and concentration
  2. optimizes brain activity and metabolism
  3. improves cognitive function
  4. increases memory recall
  5. enhances consciousness and introspection
  6. lowers stress
  7. relaxes every part of your body
  8. improves voluntary muscle control
  9. enhances athletic skills
  10. fine-tunes your sense of time
  11. increases empathy and social awareness
  12. enhances pleasure and sensuality


The Fourth Best Way to Exercise Your Brain

Aerobic exercise.  Vigorous exercise strengthens every part of the brain, as well as what it is connected to – the body. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 90, exercise is going to lengthen your life.[vi] And, in general, the more the better. For example, running is better than walking, and walking is better stretching,[vii] but it is important to find the “right” amount of exercise that feels the best for you.


The Third Best Way to Exercise Your Brain

Stay intellectually active. This should be (if you will pardon the pun) a no-brainer. When it comes to the dendrites and axons that connect one neuron to thousands of others, if you don’t use it, you will lose it.[viii] Intellectual and cognitive stimulation strengthens the neural connections throughout your frontal lobe,[ix] and this, in turn, improves your ability to communicate, solve problems, and make rational decisions concerning your behavior.



The Second Best Way to Exercise Your Brain

Stay socially connected and dialogue with others.   Language, socializing, and the human brain co-evolved with each other,[x] allowing us to excel over many of the physical and mental skills of other mammals and primates. And if we don’t exercise our communication skills, large portions of the brain will not effectively interconnect with other neural structures. Effective dialogue requires  intense social interaction, and the more social ties we have, the less our cognitive abilities will decline.[xi]


The #1, Absolute, Best Way to Exercise Your Brain

Optimism. Recently, a team of National Institutes of Health researchers concluded that optimism is neurologically essential for maintaining motivation and good mental health.[xii] Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that positive thinking decreases stress, helps you resist catching the common cold, reduces your risk of coronary artery disease, eases breathing if you have certain respiratory diseases, and improves your  coping skills during hardships.[xiii]  An optimistic attitude specifically reduces the stress-eliciting cortisol levels in your body,[xiv] and many other studies have demonstrated how optimism improves behaviorial coping in a variety of physical illnesses,[xv] and in a forty year follow-up conducted at Duke University, optimists had increased longevity when compared to pessimistic individuals.[xvi]  Indeed, the role of optimism is so important in maintaining psychological health that the University of Pennsylvania has an entire institute—the Positive Psychology Center, headed by Martin Seligman—dedicated to this research.[xvii]

[i] Okun MS, Bowers D, Springer U, Shapira NA, Malone D, Rezai AR, Nuttin B, Heilman KM, Morecraft RJ, Rasmussen SA, Greenberg BD, Foote KD, Goodman WK. What’s in a “smile?” Intra-operative observations of contralateral smiles induced by deep brain stimulation. Neurocase. 2004 Aug;10(4):271-9.


[ii] Swenson AJ, Leira EC. Paroxysmal sneezing at the onset of lateral medullary syndrome: cause or consequence? Eur J Neurol. 2007 Apr;14(4):461-3.


[iii] Krout RE. The effects of single-session music therapy interventions on the observed and self-reported levels of pain control, physical comfort, and relaxation of hospice patients. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 2001 Nov-Dec;18(6):383-90.


[iv] Schellenberg EG, Hallam S. Music listening and cognitive abilities in 10- and 11-year-olds: the blur effect. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005 Dec;1060:202-9.


Aoun P, Jones T, Shaw GL, Bodner M. Long-term enhancement of maze learning in mice via a generalized Mozart effect. Neurol Res. 2005 Dec;27(8):791-6.
Bangerter A, Heath C.
Bangerter A, Heath C. The Mozart effect: tracking the evolution of a scientific legend. Br J Soc Psychol. 2004 Dec;43(Pt 4):605-23.


[v] Wlodarczyk N. The effect of music therapy on the spirituality of persons in an in-patient hospice unit as measured by self-report. J Music Ther. 2007 Summer;44(2):113-22.


[vi] Yates LB, Djoussé L, Kurth T, Buring JE, Gaziano JM. Exceptional longevity in men: modifiable factors associated with survival and function to age 90 years. Arch Intern Med. 2008 Feb 11;168(3):284-90.


[vii] Barclay L. Exercise May Have Neuroprotective Effect. Medscape Medical News (medscape.com).


[viii] Jacobs R, Harvey AS, Anderson V. Executive function following focal frontal lobe lesions: impact of timing of lesion on outcome. Cortex. 2007 Aug;43(6):792-805.
Counts SE, Nadeem M, Lad SP, Wuu J, Mufson EJ. Differential expression of synaptic proteins in the frontal and temporal cortex of elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment. J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 2006 Jun;65(6):592-601.


[ix] Elston GN. Pyramidal cells of the frontal lobe: all the more spinous to think with. J Neurosci. 2000 Sep 15;20(18):RC95.


[x] Deacon T. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. Norton, 1997.


[xi] Unger JB, McAvay G, Bruce ML, Berkman L, Seeman T. Variation in the impact of social network characteristics on physical functioning in elderly persons: MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 1999; 54(5):S245-S251.
Bassuk SS, Glass TA, Berkman LF. Social disengagement and incident cognitive decline in community-dwelling elderly persons. Ann Intern Med. 1999;131 (3):165-173.
Aartsen MJ, Van Tilburg T, Smits CH, Comijs HC, Knipscheer KC. Does widowhood affect memory performance of older persons? Psychol Med. 2005;35 (2):217-226.


[xii] Sharot T, Riccardi AM, Raio CM, Phelps EA. Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature. 2007 Nov 1;450(7166):102-5.


[xiii] http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/positive-thinking/SR00009.


Kung S, Rummans TA, Colligan RC, Clark MM, Sloan JA, Novotny PJ, Huntington JL. Association of optimism-pessimism with quality of life in patients with head and neck and thyroid cancers. Mayo Clin Proc. 2006 Dec;81(12):1545-52.


[xiv]  Evans P, Forte D, Jacobs C, Fredhoi C, Aitchison E, Hucklebridge F, Clow A. Cortisol secretory activity in older people in relation to positive and negative well-being. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2007 Sep-Nov;32(8-10):922-30.
Schlotz W, Schulz P, Hellhammer J, Stone AA, Hellhammer DH. Trait anxiety moderates the impact of performance pressure on salivary cortisol in everyday life. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2006 May;31(4):459-72.
Lai JC, Evans PD, Ng SH, Chong AM, Siu OT, Chan CL, Ho SM, Ho RT, Chan P, Chan CC.Optimism, positive affectivity, and salivary cortisol. Br J Health Psychol. 2005 Nov;10(Pt 4):467-84.


[xv] Treharne GJ, Lyons AC, Booth DA, Kitas GD. Psychological well-being across 1 year with rheumatoid arthritis: coping resources as buffers of perceived stress. Br J Health Psychol. 2007 Sep;12(Pt 3):323-45.
Steptoe A, Marmo M, Wardle J. Positive affect and psychosocial processes related to health.Br J Psychol. 2007 Jun 27.
Martínez-Correa A, Reyes del Paso GA, García-León A, González-Jareño MI. [Relationship between dispositional optimism/pessimism and stress coping strategies] Psicothema. 2006 Feb;18(1):66-72.
Nes LS, Segerstrom SC. Dispositional optimism and coping: a meta-analytic review.
Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2006;10(3):235-51.
Schou I, Ekeberg Ø, Ruland CM. The mediating role of appraisal and coping in the relationship between optimism-pessimism and quality of life. Psychooncology. 2005 Sep;14(9):718-27.


[xvi] Brummett BH, Helms MJ, Dahlstrom WG, Siegler IC. Prediction of all-cause mortality by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Optimism-Pessimism Scale scores: study of a college sample during a 40-year follow-up period. Mayo Clin Proc. 2006 Dec;81(12):1541-4.
[xvii] http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/aboutus.htm.