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Ten Ways To Bench Press Your Brain

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We all understand what happens to our body as it ages. Without intervention (an exercise/activity program) we know that our muscles waste, our lung capacity decreases, our heart gets weaker, our bones become brittle, our flexibility and mobility decrease, our reaction time slows, our posture suffers, we move slower, and we become more susceptible to illness and injury.

Unless of course we happen to live a naturally active lifestyle (one where we regularly expend lots of energy, move, lift, stress our body — consistently do stuff physically).

I have written before about a concept called biological age (also known as physiological age) and we have established that by controlling certain variables (diet, lifestyle, exercise, stress levels) we can "turn back" our body clock. Even though we may be fifty (chronologically) we can 'build' ourself the body equivalent to that of a typical thirty year-old (in terms of cardio-vascular function, strength, bone density, blood pressure, and flexibility). If you've punished your body for fifty years it may be a different story, of course, but at the very least, you can turn back the clock a little and see a notable improvement in health, physical function and overall fitness.

What happens (typically) with a large percentage of the population is that we get to a point in time when we simply stop moving as much. We stop lifting, walking, hammering, climbing, cleaning, working — doing physical stuff. As soon as this happens, our body begins to age at a faster rate. The rate of aging is hard to quantify, as it varies from person to person, but let's just go with "a much greater rate."

For many people, retirement should be renamed the-beginning-of-the-end; they stop doing pretty much everything that kept them in shape. (I'm talking about from a health and function perspective here, not from a looking incredible perspective.)

I'm not suggesting that we all work until we're ninety five, but for some people, the day they retire is the day they stop using their mind and their body in a significant way. It is the day they begin to deteriorate. Ironic, when you consider how excited most people are about that day.

And while it's common and 'normal' for some of us to train our body in an effort to stay young physically, surprisingly, the majority of us don't consciously take a similar approach when it comes to keeping our mind in shape. We don't consciously 'exercise' our mind like we do our body.

Consider these two facts:

1) People typically slow down mentally as they age.
They experience short-term memory loss (where are my keys?), process information more slowly, find it harder to concentrate and focus, are more easily confused, become vague, and tend to be less creative and less adventurous.

2) They don't have to!
Countless studies, and simple observation, tell us that our mind, like any other muscle (it's not a muscle but you get my point), needs to be trained to stay in shape. Excluding people with specific medical conditions, we find that people who have remained mentally active as they have aged typically see little or no deterioration in their level of brain function.

The moment we stop using it, we start losing it. The good news is that our brain (like our body) is amazing and can adapt (grow 'muscle') at any age. We can (to an extent) undo some, if not most, of the damage. It's great to be in shape physically but what's the point of having four percent body-fat, Olympian biceps, and veins on our veins, if we have a mind like a Dalmatian?

After years of helping people get in shape physically, here are my tips for developing and maintaining a high-performance mind.

1. Set goals.
The moment we stop setting goals is the moment we start going backwards. Without goals we don't have to think, plan, rationalise, problem solve, or create (as much).

2. Laugh.
It's not illegal to laugh, be silly, or have fun as you age. Although some grumpy old farts will take me to task on this, they're wrong. "Hey Johnnie… pull my finger." (So juvenile.)

3. Play.
"We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing." Two of my favourite people in the world are a (nearly) seventy years young couple who ski, ride mountain bikes, run up and down sand dunes, hike, lift weights, travel, help others, play practical jokes, and hang out with 'silly' young people.

4. Study.
You don't have to go back to college and get your PhD, although you might, but maybe explore short courses, workshops, anything to blow out those cerebral cobwebs and get those rusty cogs turning once again.

Most people stop (consciously) learning when they finish school. Pity. One of my staff (Rona) is fifty-two. She started university for the first time last year. She will graduate with her bachelors degree in Exercise Science when she's fifty-four and has already informed me that she wants to continue studying once she completes her current course. The other day she told me, "it's the best thing I've ever done in my life!" (Condolences to her husband!)

5. Learn a new language.
Research tells us that people who speak two languages regularly age (mentally) at a slower rate than their unilingual buddies. They stay in shape (mentally) for longer. It even delays the onset of Alzheimer's. Now, if you spoke three languages…

6. Express yourself creatively.
Write something: a book, some poetry, a business plan, or start your own blog. Paint, draw, or sculpt. My father began to paint at sixty-five, and now is an awesome professional artist. Invent something. A lot of the best inventors are crusty old guys. Come on, you crusty old guys… invent something!

7. Read.
Not just romantic novels. Read stuff that makes you use your brain, challenges you a little. Makes you think, reason, and remember; exercise your brain.

8. Consciously try and remember stuff.

It's there, you just need to dust it off. Find your old school photos and name all your classmates. Try and remember (and replay in your mind) moments in time. Your first boyfriend's, next door neighbour's, brother's… name (the one you kissed).

9. Do some mental workouts.
Crosswords are fun and great for your brain. Puzzles, problem solving stuff, Su Doku: force yourself to think, reason, and calculate.

When you have time on your hands is the best time to brain-train: In the car, on the train, on the bus, or in waiting rooms, do maths problems, spell words, and try to recall specific information. Hmm, what does DNA stand for again? What is the capital of Poland?

10. Have a project.
Something to keep you thinking, communicating, planning, solving problems, and remembering. In general, bench pressing your brain.

Might be landscaping your property, starting a not-for-profit organisation, building a small business, rebuilding your 1956 Buick, climbing Mount Everest — whatever it is that keeps you stimulated, learning, adapting, growing, and mentally in shape.

Now, what was my first girlfriend's favourite color and what was that perfume she always wore?

Hang on a minute — what was her name?!

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About Craig Harper

  • Bobby

    I really enjoyed this blog. I could not agree more with you, I think that it become to easy as we get older to give in to the “natural” processes of aging when we dont have to. Our bodies and minds are much more resilient than we think and with a little hard work we can enjoy our lives longer and longer. I especially think that your tip #9 regarding mental workouts is essential. Continuing to exercise our minds is just as vital as exercising our bodies! I have found that besides Soduku and Crosswords, there are some really great computer programs. My favorite is one created by Posit Science, http://www.positscience.com; they are backed up by real scientific data and present their information in a really honest way. They have another really cool site, the Brain Fitness Channel bfc.positscience.com/ which has some brain games and information on the brain and body. I hope everybody find this interesting and once again GREAT blog!