Cognitive Fitness: Important Ways to Give Your Mind a Workout

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As runners, we tend to focus on physical fitness. We do our long runs, eek out speed work, cross train (sometimes) and (mostly) stretch after running. And while all of this will surely serve us well in the long run, widening our focus to include cognitive fitness will benefit us even more.

But what exactly is cognitive fitness? And will the benefits of investing in brain exercises really have a significant pay-off in terms of increased quality of life in years to come? The answer may just pleasantly surprise you.

What is cognitive fitness?

So what exactly is cognitive fitness? In short, it can be described as “a state of optimized ability to reason, remember, learn, plan, and adapt that is enhanced by certain attitudes, lifestyle choices, and exercises”. And while it was once believed that the health and functioning of the brain are solely determined by genetics and our childhood experiences, recent research has proven the opposite. It has been shown that, in addition to our genes and childhood experiences, our brain health also reflects our adult experiences and choices too.

So, depending on how you look at it, this can be wonderful news. Why? Because it puts you in a position of power. Instead of playing a victim, lamenting your unfair childhood, these findings show that you’re able to take action and improve your brain’s fitness and functioning yourself. In fact, an article published in a 2007 edition of the Harvard Business Review states that you have the power to “strengthen your brain’s anatomy, neural networks, and cognitive abilities, and prevent functions such as memory from deteriorating as you age”. Amazing, right?

The benefits of cognitive fitness

And while this may sound complex and potentially difficult to achieve, the benefits of improved cognitive fitness are more than worth it:

  • It better equips you to make important decisions, solve difficult problems and deal with the challenges of stress and change.
  • Cognitive fitness helps to open you up to new ideas and different perspectives.
  • It can help equip you with the capacity to change ingrained, nonbeneficial behavior to help accomplish your goals.
  • Cognitive fitness can help delay the onset of senescence for several years.

Which, we’re sure you’ll agree, is definitely worth putting in an effort for.

How to improve your cognitive fitness

So how exactly do you improve your cognitive fitness? Will it require cramming hours and hours of crossword puzzles and sudoku games into an already tight schedule? Fortunately not. According to professors Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts, experts in the field, the following four, easy-to-understand points are vital to improving cognitive fitness:

1. Understand that new experiences make the brain develop and grow

While the impact of new experiences on our bodies has been known for ages, researchers only recently discovered that the brain processes experience to a) help it build performance capacity and b) encode learning. But how exactly does that happen? In short, it boils down to mirror neurons in the brain enabling us to internally reflect on the world around us. In other words, the experience that we gain through observation can activate performance-enhancing neurons, thereby speeding up the learning process and enhancing our capacity to learn.

So, for example, if someone shows you how to do something, like kick a ball, this activates your mirror neurons and enables you to learn from that person’s experience by giving you a mental picture of what to do.

So get out there and seek new experiences!

2. Don’t forget to play!

As adults, most of us don’t have the time or energy to play. In fact, in this age of go-go-go, adult play often feels like a waste of time. You might, therefore, be surprised to learn that adult play is just as beneficial to your brain as child’s play were when you were younger. How so? Engaging in play as an adult activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the most highly developed part of our brain, and adult play benefits it by nourishing some of our highest-level cognitive functions. This includes functions related to incentive processing, goal representation, self-knowledge, and memory, among others.

So, in short, adult play helps us improve our ability to reason and better understand the world. If you ever needed another excuse to enter that mud run, here it is!

3. Look for patterns

Dubbed the most powerful cognitive tool at our disposal, Nobel laureate, Herbert Simon, understood the importance of pattern recognition. But what does this refer to? According to professors Gilkey and Kilts, pattern recognition “is the brain’s ability to scan the environment; discern order and create meaning from huge amounts of data; and thereby quickly assess a situation so that appropriate action can be taken right away and with a high degree of accuracy. It is a complex chain reaction that uses the highest-level capacities for abstraction and reflection that are based on the deepest repositories of stored experience”.

There are a number of things you can do to boost your pattern recognition capabilities. This includes:

  • Challenging your current mindset
  • Listening to and considering different points of view
  • Reading books and articles on subjects unknown to you
  • Visiting new places with a defined set of learning objectives

So how’s that for an excuse to head on a running adventure on the opposite side of the globe?

4. Quest for novelty and innovation

The right hemisphere of the brain, i.e. that associated with creativity and innovation, generally deteriorates faster with age than the left. Also regarded as the exploratory part of the brain, the right brain lobe is used every time you look at and experience the world around you in a new way. It is therefore vital that you exercise this part of the brain by continually exposing yourself to new, challenging activities.

As a bonus, being receptive to novelty and innovation may also help increase your resistance to Alzheimer’s disease. It may also help you make good decisions in a crisis.

Don’t skimp on cognitive fitness

So while, as a runner, your physical fitness is probably already on par, consider taking some time to work on your cognitive fitness as well. While it may not necessarily benefit your running performance, it will definitely improve your long-term quality of life. Which is what most of us are after anyway.

Sources

  1. Roderick Gilkey & Clint Kilts, Cognitive fitness, Scientific journal, Nov 01, 2007
  2. Dennis Kravetz, 10 Ways to Boost Your Cognitive Fitness and Longevity, Online publication, May 02, 2013
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