7 neuroplasticity exercises to rewire your brain
Everything you need to know to strengthen your brain health.
Neuroplasticity, also called brain plasticity, refers to the brain’s capability to change and adapt and is a fundamental part of keeping cognitively fit.
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 neuroplasticity exercises you can do to keep your brain flexible.
Maintaining good brain neuroplasticity can help to keep you sharp as you age, and protect against cognitive decline.
Neuroplasticity: how to rewire your brain
Our brains house collections of neural pathways; the connections between different parts of the nervous system that transmit information in a fraction of a second. These connections are plastic, meaning that they can change as a result of our behaviours.
According to researchers, the three ingredients for keeping your brain “plastic” are challenge, novelty, and focused attention.
Improving neuroplasticity with neuroplasticity exercises has proven to reduce the incidence of age-related cognitive illnesses. There’s no age limit to improving brain plasticity. However, mental stimulation is an essential part of health no matter your age.
So, what should you do to improve your neuroplasticity?
What activities increase neuroplasticity?
Examples of 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.
1. 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.
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.
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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 managing your nerves, 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.
3. Learn to juggle
Learning how to juggle is most probably not on most people’s to-do lists. But it definitely fulfils the criteria of being a challenge, novel, and requiring focused attention.
Studies showed that adults who learned how to juggle experienced an increase in the grey matter in the occipito-temporal cortex—and, more recently, that it also boosted white matter in the brain.
You don’t need to become a circus performer, though. It’s the learning experience that counts. Trying something like juggling is especially helpful in improving the link between what you see and how you move.
4. Learn a musical instrument
Research has shown that people who learn music at an early age have a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) when they are older. MCI, which includes memory problems and word-finding difficulties, is often a precursor of age-related cognitive illnesses. Similar to learning how to juggle, learning to play an instrument requires intense focus.
Once again, master musicians aren’t the only ones whose brains benefit. Practising for fun is more than enough to boost neuroplasticity.
5. Mindfulness and meditation
Meditation might sound like the opposite of exercise, but the practice of sitting with your thoughts for a few minutes every day has been proven to boost neuroplasticity. Just like learning a language or any other new skill, meditating is a process and not a one-off event.
There are many ways of meditating, including:
Mindfulness meditation: allowing your thoughts to flow through your head without judgment Progressive relaxation meditation: consciously relaxing each part of your body, one by one Guided meditations: listening to a recording to guide you through various meditation practices
Loving-kindness meditation: focusing your mind on compassion for yourself and others
6. Brain training websites, apps, and programs
If you’re looking for structured ways to boost your brain, the internet has a huge selection of popular games and exercises to choose from. A few examples of apps and programs that support neuroplasticity include:
Luminosity – memory exercises, problem-solving games and more
Elevate – a variety of word games, mathematics games and more
Happy neurone – a more targeted and personalised program to train your brain
Not all online tools are supported by research, however, making it a good idea to incorporate other exercises, such as learning a new skill or practising meditation.
7. Non-dominant hand exercises
Brushing your teeth, cutting your veggies or performing other actions with your non-dominant hand can stimulate your brain and strengthen neural pathways. Known as “neurobics”, these exercises challenge your brain by demanding deliberate focus, rather than allowing you to run on autopilot.
Does exercise increase 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 (due to increased blood flow and cell growth), 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 age-related cognitive illnesses. 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.
What foods increase neuroplasticity?
In this post, we discussed the best brain foods for long-term brain health. One food that might be particularly beneficial for brain plasticity is oily fish, as it's packed full of brain-essential DHA fatty acid. DHA is mainly found in the grey matter of your brain, so foods high in DHA will be one of the best foods that improve memory and information processing.
Neuroplasticity exercises for mental health
Not only does neuroplasticity training keep you sharp and protect you against cognitive decline, but it also has been suggested to help with mental health. This study suggests that with mental health illnesses, your neuroplasticity is impaired. And so, engaging in activities that increase your neuroplasticity may aid recovery.
Be sure to explore…
Whether you’re a budding linguist or like the idea of playing the cello, there’s sure to be something that can stimulate your neural pathways in an enjoyable way. Now you know how to increase neuroplasticity, don’t feel afraid to try something new. If it’s not for you, try something else!
For more on neuroplasticity, read our recommendations for the best books, podcasts, and series on the subject here.