Neurobics: Exercising Your Brain

Sure, you’ve heard of aerobics. Even though it was only about twenty years ago that aerobics ran headlong into mainstream usage, it seems like it’s been around forever. Nowadays, you can’t read an article on fitness or weight loss without some kind of discussion of the importance of aerobic exercise. But have you ever heard of the word neurobics?

If you haven’t, be prepared. It’s a word likely to come into common usage as the baby boomer generation misty wonderland of memory loss and Alzheimer’s. What exactly is neurobics? It’s a word that was coined by Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin to describe exercises designed to increase the brain’s ability to stay fit so it can learn and remember better. Neurobics is really nothing more than a fancy new term for an idea as old as dirt: mental alertness comes with using your mind.

The brain works by firing off its neural pathways. An unstimulated brain is an underutilized brain. The latest research into this area indicates that by using one’s senses in new and unexpected ways, a chemical known as neutrophin is produced by the brain. This chemical works as a sort of mental Miracle-Gro, allowing parts of the brain called dendrites to actually increase in size-sometimes even doubling in size-as well as making them more complex.

The key to neurobics is using all your senses, but using them in new ways. The purpose is to do something that has become such a trite and overused phrase that I really don’t even want to use it here, so I will use it in a new and different way: Considering a method whereby old avenues are considered in a manner that takes place external to the cardboard cube in which products are stored.

You know, thinking outside the box. (And, hey, wouldn’t it be great if that was the last time you ever had to read or hear that phrase, huh?)

Get away from the orthodox and the conformist way of thinking about things. Consider them in a new light. Ditch the routine and try something wacky or bizarre. When you do these things, you aren’t just accomplishing something at odds with most of society; you are actually heating up those neural pathways. In other words, thinking in unique ways actually has a physical affect inside your brain.

You must engage not just your thought processes in different ways, but your actual senses. For instance, do you have a morning routine that you basically repeat in the same way every day? You get out of bed, you go to the bathroom, you walk down the hall to the kitchen and put the coffee on, then come back and wake the kids up. Or anything that you do every morning. Tomorrow, try it with your eyes closed. You’ve done it a thousand times, you know where everything is, even the coffee and the coffeemaker. Do it blind tomorrow. Instead of relying upon your eyes, you’ll find yourself engaging tactile senses as you make your way down the hall. You’ll use your sense of smell to make sure you got the coffee and not the tea. Doing this may sound pointless and even a little frustrating, but your brain will be forced to make new connections.

If your routine varies or is just too complicated, here’s something else you can do tomorrow. Leave for work fifteen minutes and take a different route. A route you’ve never take before. See if you can get all the way to work without driving on a road you’ve ever driven before for as long as possible. Obviously, at some point you’ll have to drive down a road you’ve been on, but try to put it off as long as possible. And while you’re driving, change your routine. If you usually listen to the radio, turn it off and open the windows. If you’re used to listening to Morning Edition on All Things Considered, tune to a station that plays music you rarely listen to. If you’ve got the guts, tune to a station that plays music you hate. If you always stop at the convenience on the way to work and pick up some coffee, stop at a different store and buy an energy drink. Engage all your senses in new and different ways.

A very simple neurobics exercise you do involves increasing your use of touch. The next time you run up to the convenience store to buy something, dump a handful of coins into your pocket. When the clerk rings you up, pay exact change, but figure out what coins you need by sticking your hand into your pocket and figuring out which are the correct coins. Don’t use sight to figure out what you need, just use your touch. I wouldn’t advise doing this if there’s a long line of people behind you, but it should be easy enough to do in less than a minute.

One of the really cool things about neurobics is that you can include your children and other family members in them and make it into a game. Or, if you wish, even a competition. One really fun thing to do-fun on so many levels-is to take the family out to dinner at a restaurant. Preferably a family restaurant and not an expensive, snooty one. The entire family agrees that they will eat their entire dinner from appetizers through dessert communicating with each other-just each other and not the servers-via gestures, expressions and body language. You’ll be forced to use every other sense at your disposal other than speaking in order to communicate. In addition, you’ll get the extra added enjoyment of being the center of attention for everywhere else in the restaurant who’ll be wondering just what in the heck you insane people are doing. They’ll know you can speak because you ordered your food. It’s fun and it jumpstarts your brain.

Another family activity that provides lots of laughs involves taking something with a really strong scent like a bowl of strawberries or slice onions and hiding it somewhere. Then another member of the family is blindfolded and must locate the hidden item using their senses of smell and touch as they make through way through the house. Actually, there is another sense that is utilized in this activity, though we don’t normally describe it as such and we haven’t yet turned it into the vaunted sixth sense. Memory. The person who is looking for the scented item will be using touch to make his way blindly through the house, but he’ll also be engaging his memory in the search as he travels through the house.

In addition to activities like these, there are also simple games that can be played that qualify as neurobics . When you were in school, you probably had an assignment-typically right before a holiday-when you were given a long word and told see how many other words you could create from the letters used in it. For instance, how many different words can you create from AssociatedContent? To make it more fun, give this assignment to ten people and see how many refrain from making “ass” their first word.

Brain teasers are nothing more than old school neurobics. Tease the brain into thinking in a way it isn’t used to thinking. Aerobic exercise brings oxygen to your muscles and makes your body stronger. Neurobics brings chemical reactions to your body as well and will make it stronger. So start working out and get a six-pack in your head!

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