April 14th, 2014

Raise your hand if you do crossword puzzles. I fly a lot. I talk with people a lot. Often on a plane trip, when I get to talking with the person in the next seat, the conversation veers to, “What do you do?” When I explain that I teach successful aging and brain fitness, the often repeated comment is, “I do crossword puzzles.” To some folks that is the ultimate (and sometimes only) activity they do to maintain brain fitness. WRONG! The folks in charge of the Road Scholar program where I teach, titled my course “Brain Fitness Beyond Crossword Puzzles."

Crosswords are neat if you can spell—not a gift I possess. But, if they are the only brain fitness activity you do, it is not sufficient. After the 327th crossword puzzle your brain says, “Same old, same old” and reverts to auto pilot. Not good.

Your brain needs challenge to keep it fit and functioning optimally.

Up until the last couple of decades—the 90’s were the “decade of the brain”—it was assumed (usually not a wise move) that in terms of neurons your brain today is the same as the one you were born with - no changes could occur. Because of worldwide brain research we now know that the brain is plastic. Not plastic like your water bottle. Rather in terms of brain vocabulary “plasticity “ or “neuroplasticity,” is a term used to describe how the neural pathways of your brain can grow and change depending upon your experiences. When you challenge your brain by learning new things or assimilating new information changes in neural connections are created. It is never too early or too late to change your brain. That’s the good news. The bad news (or not) is that you must make decisions to keep your brain growing and changing.

I have mentioned choices before and you will hear the word many more times. We can choose to sit (sitting is the new smoking – more on that later) and watch re-runs of “I Love Lucy” or even sit and do the daily crossword puzzle OR we can choose to learn something new and stimulate new brain growth.

Currently, I am taking courses in Pranayama Breathing and Meditation – all kinds of new learning (see my Breathe blog). I have taken a course with a computer tutor (I need a baker’s dozen or so more of those lessons) to become more computer literate.

I love jigsaw puzzles (they are addictive so I only do them on vacation). They challenge my brain (see the picture on this post) in many and varied ways.

There are many other ways to challenge your brain. I give class participants homework—they are to read one paragraph in a newspaper or magazine two or three times a week—upside down. It is both fun and challenging. It makes your brain work in different ways—creating new neural pathways—neuroplasticity.

Another fun way to challenge your brain is to read words in which the letters are mixed up. Here are two sentences just to give you an idea of how this works.



Could you read it? Challenging and fun things like this keep your brain sharp and sprouting new dendrites and creating new neural pathways. Consider some of the top ways you can challenge your brain.

You might want to consider learning to:

  • speak a new language – consider America Sign Language or simply counting in a new language
  • cook new recipes
  • knit or crochet (a lost art)
  • paint in watercolors or oils
  • line dance (or square dance or salsa or…)
  • play an instrument
  • be in command of your computer 
  • or to learn about a place you haven't visited and then visit it

Challenge walks a thin line - too difficult and your brain says, “No thanks.” Too easy and your brain says, “No thanks.” Find what is challenging and interesting and exciting for you, then just do it!

Thinking ministry

The next time you are involved in Bible study, or studying on your own, find resources that will help you delve deeper into the scripture. Discover the derivation of words or the geographical influence of the land on the circumstances. Discover the different order of similar stories according to the point the author wanted to make. Dig deeper! This challenge of discovering more about scripture will help you grow in faith and help keep your brain sharp. It sounds like a win/win to me.

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