The road to a fit mind isn't paved in crossword puzzles alone. In fact, walking that road can also give your gray matter a boost, according to top researchers. "Exercise is as close to a magic bullet as brain fitness gets," says John Medina, PhD, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning at Seattle Pacific University. Physical activity bathes neural tissue in oxygen-rich blood, increasing the production of chemicals that improve memory, attention, and problem-solving.
When sedentary adults in one study jogged for half an hour 2 or 3 times a week for 12 weeks, their memory and ability to juggle tasks improved by 30 percent. Just as important: Inactivity stops this process. When the participants returned to their couch potato ways, they lost 10 percent of the gain after 6 weeks.
To create the ultimate brainpower workout, we developed this 7-day plan based on cutting-edge research that will wake you up above the neck while still delivering the calorie-torching, body-toning benefits of ordinary workouts. The twist: Simple tweaks such as choosing scenic walking routes, closing your eyes while strength-training, and even playing catch activate areas of your brain that regular exercise doesn't challenge. Follow along for a week's worth of workouts, then continue to use the strategies below as often as possible, whether you repeat the 7-day plan or incorporate the techniques into your own routine.
Day 1: Take a nature walk
Why it's a brain booster: University of Michigan researchers found that memory and attention improved 20 percent when people walked in a park versus an urban environment. Natural settings have a restful effect, allowing the brain to better process information, says study co-author Marc Berman, a PhD candidate and psychology researcher. Busy surroundings — noisy traffic, colorful billboards, and throngs of people — clamor for attention and distract you. An iPod can do the same, so leave it at home to emerge calmer, more focused — and better able to tackle your to-do list.
Day 2: Connect with your senses
Why it's a brain booster: Studies have long shown that tai chi improves balance. Now research demonstrates it may also protect the area of the brain responsible for the sense of touch, which tends to fade rapidly after 40. In a recent Harvard study, 50-to 60-year-olds who did tai chi had a more acute sense of feeling in their fingertips, equivalent to that of people nearly half their age. Improved sensation can help you thread a needle, savor hugs from loved ones, or react quickly to a hot stove; as you age, it also helps prevent falls. Tai chi's controlled movements strengthen nerve pathways to the fingers and toes, which become less responsive without practice, says study author Catherine Kerr, PhD. Try it at prevention.com/taichi.
Day 3: Add in speed
Why it's a brain booster: A 2007 study found that exercisers who did two 3-minute sprints memorized new words 20 percent faster afterward than those who skipped the workout. Cardio exercise increases blood flow, triggering growth in the area of the hippocampus responsible for memory and verbal learning, research shows. The proliferation of new brain cells may actually be linked to a bigger brain. In a University of Pittsburgh study, the most aerobically fit had an average 7 percent larger hippocampus size than their sofa-sitting peers did. (A small hippocampus may be to blame for forgetting appointments or names.)
Day 4: Challenge your balance
Why it's a brain booster: Emerging research reveals a link between toning your muscles and toning your brain. In a Canadian study, older adults who lifted weights along with walking and balance exercises improved their decision-making abilities by nearly 13 percent in 6 months. Adding a balance and coordination challenge to standard strength moves — such as simultaneously raising your right arm and left leg — may magnify the benefit. "Complex movements force your mind to work harder by engaging multiple parts of the brain," says John Martin, PhD, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. Start with these 4 mind-sharpening moves from Michael Gonzalez-Wallace, creator of The Brain Muscle Workout, which will also sculpt your arms, legs, back, and belly. Do 3 sets of 10 reps. Already lift weights? Add these moves to your regular workout to amp up brainpower and firm faster.
- Balancing arm raise: Stand holding dumbbells at sides, palms back. Lift right knee to hip height as you raise left arm up in front, elbow straight, until it's overhead. Lower and switch sides.
- Ballerina curl: Stand with feet wide, toes out, holding dumbbells at sides, palms forward. Bend knees, lowering hips. As you stand, curl dumbbells toward shoulders and lift heels. Lower dumbbells, then heels, and repeat.
- Coordination crunch: Lie on back with a dumbbell in each hand near chest, elbows bent out to sides, legs extended over hips, and abs tight. Simultaneously open legs into a 'V' as you lift head and shoulders off floor and press weights straight up over chest. Lower to start, bringing legs together, and repeat.
- Step and pull: Stand with left foot about 3 feet in front of right, dumbbells at sides, palms back. Bend knees to lower into a lunge, front knee over ankle. Stand, bending elbows out to sides to pull weights up to chest level, and bring right knee forward to hip height. Balance, then step back into another lunge, lowering arms.
Day 5: Toss a ball while walking
Why it's a brain booster: German researchers found that adolescents, who bounced, threw, or passed balls with alternating hands for just 10 minutes increased their attention and concentration in a subsequent lesson and test. You don't have to be a kid to benefit, say study authors, who speculate that handling a ball primes the part of the brain that controls focus.
Day 6: Repeat day 3, with a friend
Why it's a brain booster: A substantial body of research suggests that beefing up your social calendar decreases your chances of memory loss. A study in the American Journal of Public Health reported that women with large social networks slashed their risk of dementia by as much as 26 percent. Plus, psychology research concludes that encouraging others to exercise will ensure that you follow through too.
Day 7: Repeat day 4, with eyes closed
Why it's a brain booster: "When you take away visual cues, you push your brain to use circuits that aren't normally engaged," says Martin. Your brain relies on a combination of sensory information from your limbs, joints, and eyes to coordinate movements. By closing your eyes, you force your brain to adapt. This improves plasticity — your mind's ability to change and refine when faced with new experiences, a process that tends to wane with age.
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