Want to grow new brain cells? It turns out that exercise leads to new brain cell development, in an area of the brain called the hippocampus- which is the gateway to forming memories. This finding is remarkable because until not so long ago, neruoscientists assumed that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells- and that was it throughout one’s life. Now it’s clear that new cells are born throughout our lives, in the area of the brain responsible for laying down new memories, and this process is triggered by exercise. When we exercise- and it has to be enough to really sweat, neurogenesis- or the birth of new cells- is the result.
Even more interesting: animal models suggest that the cells that are born may die within a few days unless the brain is challenged to learn new information. That is, it appears that the cells are born “just in case” they are needed. So in order to improve memory function, It makes sense that we should BOTH exercise and engage in activities that challenge us to think and remember. Get the brain cells multiplying, then make sure those new cells stay around.
Does your job challenge you to think creatively and learn new information? Great. If not, engage in activities that require flexible thought and memorizing. Card games are a great leisure activity that fit this bill. Bridge is making a comeback, and its combination of strategy and memory demands makes it particularly helpful to brain health. Some forms of poker also require memorizing cards and strategy.
Eating foods or supplements with omega-3 fatty acids also improves the process of preserving new cells that were born as a result of exercise in animal models. So eating salmon for dinner, after running in the morning and playing bridge or poker is one of the best brain healthy routines out there.
The caveat here is that the presence of stress releases hormones into the brain that can prevent the new brain cells from sticking. So, if we want to improve cognitive abilities, the key is to exercise and engage in challenging mental activities, while keeping stress down. If you always fight with your partner during a bridge game- choose other games! If stress is present in other areas of life, such as on the job, kids, marriage, practice some simple stress reducing techniques such as mindful breathing.
(Mindful breathing: put aside 5 minutes, sit quietly, relax each muscle group starting with the toes and ending with the head. Then breathe in, stating a word or phrase quietly to yourself, such as “calm.” Exhale. Then breathe in again and repeat the phrase. It’s very simple, and the technique reliably creates a feeling of calm and lowers tension.)