by Susan Grotenhuis
If you’re looking to improve your brain fitness you may have started adding blueberries to your cereal, taken up doing the daily crossword or switched your favorite brew to red wine. All good choices, but what about taking a trip?
Whether you choose to visit a museum, historic home or arboretum, getting out and immersing yourself in new surroundings is full of brain stimulating activities. All it takes is a little planning and a sense of adventure. There’s no need for a fat wallet or an overnight stay. But do bring your thinking cap, walking shoes and a map. Here are four easy ways to keep your brain sharp and active.
Find a way to include plenty of walking on your trip. If you have a long drive, stop and get out of the car. Rest stops, local parks, and even shopping malls or parking lots are all good options (watch out for cars!). Regular moderate exercise has been shown to improve cognitive performance. In a Mayo Clinic study sedentary adults who exercised five to six times a week reduced their risk of mild cognitive impairment by 32% compared to those who did not exercise. (Mild cognitive impairment is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.) Don’t miss out on an opportunity to get your heart rate up. If you’re deconditioned or can’t stay on your feet for very long, attempt short bouts of ten minutes or so with rest periods in between rather than sitting the whole time.
Spatial acuity is one type of measurable intelligence. Men tend to perform better than women at visual-spatial tasks such as finding their way around town or using a map. Practicing spatial skills engages your hippocampus (memory center) and your cerebellum (coordination). Whether driving somewhere new or locating a picture gallery in a museum, learn to rely on the map or your memory to get around.
With the advent of GPS, many drivers are losing their ability to notice and absorb their surroundings. Several studies reveal that when we rely on someone or something else to get us to our destination, we retain far less information relative to where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.
In 2000, Eleanor Maguire published the results of a now famous London taxi driver study. These cabbies are expected to retain extensive knowledge of local streets and landmarks within a six mile radius. Observing their brains using MRI, researchers found that the drivers had far more grey matter (linked to intelligence) in the hippocampus than the control group. Even if it’s a strain – or especially if it’s a strain – use your noggin!
Having fresh experiences helps to keep our brains young. Without change or challenge it quickly atrophies and our thinking becomes dull. Counteract this prospect by exploring new ideas and new places. Don’t settle for visiting places you like, try something entirely new. Take an outdoor tai chi class or attend a food festival. Push your boundaries and step beyond your comfort zone.
Deep at the cellular level, minute changes are constantly taking place. The brain responds to the demands we put on it. This process is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can be both good and bad. When we get stuck in a rut, our neural pathways become rigid. Think of it as taking a favorite hiking path in the woods. The more frequently the path is used, the more defined and compacted it becomes. Learning something different forces your brain to work in ways it has not done before. It forces neurons to forge new pathways and make fresh connections. It’s a good thing for brain fitness!
The Great Outdoors
Being in nature has a therapeutic effect. Apart from reducing stress, nature turns our thoughts away from our own problems and focuses them on the beauty around us. In recent research by Stanford University, researchers in California and Sweden found that spending as little as ninety minutes in a natural setting decreased negative thoughts. So when planning your trip, be sure to include a picnic in the park or a stroll along a tree-lined avenue.