Make time for mental workouts
Activities that stimulate our brains are important as we move through life.
In Ohio State’s fencing gym, young athletes work to stay upright on wobble boards — platforms with rounded bases, like half of an exercise ball. The more they wiggle and throw themselves off balance, the more their leg and ankle muscles strengthen and learn to correct to an upright position.
Muscles grow and strengthen when they are challenged, and the same is true for our brains. That’s why it is just as important to engage in activities that strengthen our brains and intellectual wellness as it is to work out our muscles.
What is intellectual well-being and why is it important? Lindsay Bernhagen ’08 MA, ’13 PhD, defines it this way: “The intellectually well person values lifelong learning and seeks to foster critical thinking, develop moral reasoning, expand worldviews and engage in education for the pursuit of knowledge.”
Just as a flexible body indicates physical health, she says, a flexible mind indicates intellectual wellness. Any time you learn a new skill or concept, attempt to understand a different viewpoint, or exercise your mind with puzzles and games, you’re building intellectual well-being.
This isn’t just a concept. Working your mind in this way actually improves the physical structure of your brain. While scientists once believed that humans were born with all of the brain cells they would ever have, we now know that new neurons are born continuously throughout your life, with neurogenesis regularly replacing old, dead cells in some areas of the brain.
Studies show that both physical exercise and mental exercise — learning new things, for example — support the health of these new neurons, while stress and depression can hinder them. Challenging your brain also helps existing neurons form new connections. A combination of intellectual growth and relaxing mindfulness, therefore, can help prevent mental decline as you age.
There are many ways you can improve your intellectual wellness that are both free and fun. Here are a few:
- Read: Try reading news stories 20 minutes a day to stay informed about the world, nonfiction to learn about new subjects or, for a new experience, ask a friend to recommend a book you wouldn’t ordinarily choose. Read about a political issue and try debating it with a friend, taking the opposite side from your own point of view. Even reading for fun can exercise your ability to visualize and make new neural connections.
- Learn: Attend public lectures about subjects new to you at your local library, university, museum or civic organization. Try learning a foreign language, a musical instrument, or a new craft or skill.
- Play: Sudoku, crossword puzzles and strategic games such as chess and Scrabble exercise your mind and memory. Trying a new sport that you wouldn’t usually go for can provide mental as well as physical challenges.
- Explore: Go to a concert, movie or play you might not ordinarily choose. Travel also can put you in new situations and promote intellectual growth and problem solving. Try a new adventure! Stay curious. Even taking a different route to work or the grocery store can stimulate your mind.
- Practice mindfulness: Focus your awareness on the present moment. A good way to do this is to focus on your breathing, taking slow, deep breaths and concentrating on the air moving in and out of your lungs. Acknowledge thoughts and let them go without exploring any anxieties about the future or regrets about the past. Just be present with yourself without thinking about anything. A few minutes of mindfulness practice a day allows your brain to relax, de-stress and recharge. “The Present” by Dr. Spencer Johnson is a good book about mindfulness.
Engaging in lifelong learning, challenging your mind and following your curiosity sets the stage for a vibrant, centered and mentally active life. When you work to improve your intellectual well-being, you strengthen your mind — and you will never be bored!
Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is the university’s chief wellness officer, vice president for health promotion and College of Nursing dean.