Games sure seem like a good way to work your brain out, but don’t put your stock in Sudoku. “They target very specific cognitive abilities, but they don’t transfer to clarity of thinking, problem solving, planning—all the complex skills that really matter,” explains Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of Make Your Brain Smarter.
When it comes to keeping your brain real-world strong, research has shown–over and over again–two activities to be worth your time. The first is aerobic exercise, says Dr. Karen Li, head of Concordia University’s laboratory for adult development and cognitive aging.
By bolstering your cardiovascular fitness and blood circulation, exercise nourishes your brain with the nutrients and oxygen it needs to perform optimally, Li says. But physical activity offers more than just brain fuel. “Some brain regions and functions seem to benefit more than others,” she explains–specifically the frontal lobe, responsible for high-level skills related to complex processes like multitasking. “That tells us aerobic exercise helps the brain work more efficiently.”
Whether you enjoy running, speed walking, gardening or hiking, “as long as you sweat a bit and your heart rate goes up, that’s what your brain needs,” Li adds. Chapman agrees. “Skip the Sudoku and get out and exercise,” she says. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week.)
Along with physical activity, your brain needs mental stimulation to stay hale and fit. And when it comes to mental stimulation, novelty is important, Li explains. Here’s why: The more you use your mind to perform a task—whether it’s cooking your favorite dish or driving to the supermarket—the less effort your brain requires to complete that task. “If you feel like your brain’s on autopilot most or all of the time, that’s an indication that you need to increase the challenge a little bit,” she says.
One of the best ways to do that is to stay socially active, Li says. “Following and contributing to a conversation requires a lot of mental prowess.” Visiting intellectually invigorating places, like museums or cultural centers, and learning new skills are also great ways to keep your brain in shape. Even mixing in some variety when it comes to your favorite activities—like trying out a new recipe or cooking technique—will keep your mind off autopilot.
But there’s a catch. “It’s important that you feel genuine interest in these activities,” Li says. Practicing a foreign language for 30 minutes a day is a good way to challenge your brain, but if you feel meh about one day speaking fluent French, your mind won’t benefit as much as it would from something that truly excites or interests you.
If museum visits or learning new languages doesn’t float your boat, Chapman offers an alternate way to fire up your idling brain. “Challenge yourself to think in top-down, complex ways as you go about your day,” she recommends. When you watch a television show or read an article (like this one), pause once you’ve finished to really dissect the information you’ve just encountered. “Zoom out, then zoom in,” Chapman says. Start as broadly as you can (this is a health article) and work your way down (about the brain) until you’ve gotten to the nitty gritty—things like themes or lessons you could take away from what you’ve just seen or read (surely, too numerous to list).
“People take in a lot of information—probably more than we ever have before—but it’s not making us smarter because we’re not spending much time making sense of it,” Chapman says. “Try to push yourself out of your mental comfort zone by asking what about the information matters.”
This is especially important for older retired adults who aren’t faced with the everyday intellectual challenges presented by work or school. “We’re all going to be living longer,” Chapman says. “Along with aerobic exercise, engaging your brain in complex ways is absolutely necessary to keep your mind sharp in the second half of life.”