Exercises to increase neuroplasticity
The brain does most of its development in early life, in fact, most neuroplasticity happens before age 25. But, between the ages of 25 and 65, there are still many exercises you can do to keep your brain flexible (which is essentially what neuroplasticity exercises do). Maintaining good brain neuroplasticity can help to keep you sharp as you age, and protect against cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Brain neuroplasticity exercises may not be what you think—rather than Sudoku, they have to be attention-intense to keep the brain learning, growing, and changing. On a Working In podcast, neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart shared;
Crosswords and Sudoku aren’t intense enough unless you're really not a numbers person! Changing your brain neuroplasticity needs activities that are attention-intense, learning a new language or learning a musical instrument are classic examples.
There are many things you can do throughout your life to increase neuroplasticity. Essentially, the brain loves novelty and newness, so when you’re considering neuroplasticity exercises—if it’s something new, it should get the job done. Below, we’ve rounded up some of the top exercises to increase neuroplasticity for starters, but remember, creativity is king here.
Three neuroplasticity exercises
Learn a language
Learning a new language is a great way to increase neuroplasticity, as every word is an opportunity for a new neural connection to be created in the brain. Take the word ‘apple’ for example. The brain creates a new neural pathway between the visual of an apple, the word in your native language, the sound of the word in the new language, as well as the spelling of it, and commits all of that to a memory that you can access whenever you need to say 'apple' in the new language. See? Lots of new connections that require an intense amount of attention, changing the brain’s neuroplasticity.
In this study of exchange students, five months of intensive language study resulted in an increase in the density of grey matter in the brain. Grey matter is where the regions of the brain associated with language, attention, memory, emotions, and motor skills are housed. So, increasing the density of this region of the brain can help to protect the functioning of these areas as you age.
And, in this study, the act of learning a language as an adult was shown to strengthen white matter—which helps with connectivity and communication between different regions of the brain.
One of our favourite memory grandmasters, Heights tribe member Ed Cooke, developed the brilliant app Memrise, which is designed to help you learn and retain new language skills in a fun and engaging way. You can check out the Work In interview all about memory we did with Ed here.
Although learning a language is a classic example of a neuroplasticity exercise, as Dr Tara Swart says, learning anything new is attention-intense enough to change your brain and increase neuroplasticity, as long as it’s out of your comfort zone. So, pick up the ukulele, start rolling your own sushi, or pilot a hot air balloon. The possibilities are endless.
One of the best bits of science we’ve ever discovered is that going on holiday is good for your brain. Not only is it fun, essential for stress management, and great for your personality; it also increases neuroplasticity.
The new places, people, food, language, and culture are all ways of pushing you out of your comfort zone. This means that you learn by necessity, forcing the brain to problem-solve and adapt, and your neurons to fire in new ways.
For example, think about the last time you had to navigate to where you were staying in the middle of the night, without being able to read or speak a word of the local language, in the pouring rain, while trying to hang on to your sense of humour. That’s some serious synaptic gymnastics at work, changing your brain neuroplasticity.
As well as the obvious benefits to your body both internally and externally; exercise also benefits your brain. Working out can impact your mental health in many ways (the increased blood flow and cell growth are linked to a reduction in depression), and it can also shape and change the structure of the brain itself–making it a great way to increase neuroplasticity.
According to Dr Tara Swart, doing regular aerobic exercise increases the cell turnover in your brain by 12-14%, and if you suddenly start doing aerobic exercise, you can improve the cell turnover in your brain by 30% (great news if you like to switch up your exercise regime, or are prone to occasional bouts of couch-potato-dom). The increase in cell turnover helps with cognitive functions like learning and memory.
Exercise can also help to improve motor coordination and connectivity in the brain, which may help to protect against cognitive decline and delay Alzheimer’s disease.
So, whether it’s learning a new sport, dusting off your dancing shoes, or simply getting outside for a walk or a run–your mind will love the extra flexibility just as much as your body.
For more on neuroplasticity, read our recommendations for the best books, podcasts, and series on the subject here.