Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mental Aerobics

A colleague and I began writing about mental aerobics more than 25 years ago. Our articles on the subject were published in academic journals such as Innovative Higher Education and Educational Horizons.. Our article, "Mental Aerobics: Directed Discussion," was the lead article in the Journal of Communication Studies (Volume 7, Number 2, February, 1989, pp. 1-8).

Our most recent article on the topic appeared in The Clearing House (Volume 65, Number 3, January-February, 1992) and it was titled, "Mental Aerobics: Just for the Fun of It."

Our definition of mental aerobics—one that we created—was "the stimulation (oxygenation) of the mind through well-planned, specific, and direct exercise routines." That definition, too, will work for the kind of exercises I want to discuss in this essay—although I have changed the focus from college-classroom activities to personal exercises designed to stimulate the brain.

There are two important things to know before reading this essay. First, exercises aimed specifically at boosting brain power have been proven effective. Second, the earlier one begins these activities, the more likely that they will become habitual. There is no reason people need to wait until they are older before beginning to boost brain power.

It was around 1980 that Dr. Gary Small, Director of the UCLA Center on Aging, said that scientists discovered that aging of the brain is not inevitable. According the the MSNBC website on "Maintaining Your Memory" alzheimers_disease/t/workout-your-brain/> in an essay titled, "A Workout for Your Brain," Jacqueline Stenson writes, "Research has demonstrated, for example, that higher levels of education and plenty of mental stimulation throughout life are associated with lower rates of Alzheimer’s, [Dr. Gary Small] notes." The important thing to note in this quotation is "plenty of mental stimulation throughout life." "It’s the use-it-or-lose-it theory," Small says. "If you keep your brain cells active it improves their efficiency. You develop what we believe is a cognitive reserve."

What you need to know is that there is a direct correlation between physical exercise and brain stimulation. How much? The current (2012) public-health recommendation is 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise—like walking or biking—most days of the week.

Why does this physical exercise matter? Stenson answers: "Such activity keeps arteries fit and can promote healthy blood flow to the brain . . . and there’s some evidence it may even cause the release of nerve growth factors that create new connections in the brain. Exercise also appears to help by regulating blood sugar, which seems to play a key role in brain health, according to Dr. Antonio Convit, medical director of the Center for Brain Health at New York University."

At the website Joyful Aging , the page is titled "Reading and Mental Aerobics—Your Mind: Use It or Lose It." The essay on this page by Larry Hartweg, is called "Lifelong Learning In An Ever Expanding Universe of Endless Possibilities."

Hartweg writes, "Exposure to novel and interesting mental material (concepts, and situations) strengthens our cognitive capacity. Our minds grow stronger by reading, creative writing, vocabulary and concept expansion, seeking unconventional/unfamiliar points of view, complex thinking, problem solving, social interaction and exploratory research in libraries, challenging lectures, Internet materials, etc.)."

Hartweg offers his readers "Simple Mental Aerobic exercise examples:

Try eating your food with the other hand.
Eat an unfamiliar healthy food.
Read an article or book or research on an unfamiliar subject.
Seek counterintuitive interesting concepts that fly in the face of conventional thinking.
Temporarily ignore reality. Daydream or fantasize about a happy unfamiliar frivolous situation.
Take a concept from one context and playfully imagine it somewhere that it never appears.
Listen to (or try to play) an unfamiliar style of music.
Add new words to your vocabulary—study their source, meaning, and usage.
Learn a new challenging skill, sport, exercise, or dance pattern.
Take a calculated risk and pay attention to how you react to the unpredictable outcome.
Take a less-than-optimal path home, which you have never traveled before.
Stop somewhere you have never been and pay attention to often-overlooked details.
Become an actor for a day and significantly after a long-help personality trait (in a good way).
Discuss a new experience with someone you just met and don’t know very well.
Try to make a new subject interesting to someone else who has never heard of it.
Listen closely and learn from interpersonal feedback.
Seek and genuinely appreciate constructive criticism.

I place all of Hartweg’s ideas here because they are so good—good for everyone no matter their age. He writes, "Your brain should be delighted, especially with unpredictable surprises. Your mind will become incrementally stronger and happier than it was before. Intellectual boredom atrophies the physical capacity of the brain and your ability to improve your life." I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Scientific American Frontiers , offers a great motivational paragraph in its essay, "Get Fit With Mental Aerobics," quoted from Gary Small’s Memory Bible: "Just as physical activity can keep your body strong, mental activity can keep your mind sharp and agile. You can continue to challenge yourself by using a variety of approaches. You might consider exploring a new hobby, learning a foreign language, or perhaps taking up a musical instrument. Making a change in your leisure reading - perhaps switching from romance novels to biographies or mysteries could potentially tweak your dendrites."

Larry Hartweg, cited earlier, provides a great way to end this essay. He writes: "A lazy, declining mind seeks things that reinforce obsolete, inaccurate stereotypes and rejects and resists change. In essence, such people atrophy into "non-learning entities" (NLE’s) that emotionally reject facts that disagree with their inaccurate stereotypes. NLE’s emotionally reject constructive criticism, and thus lose the ability to learn. A healthy mind must be open, flexible and adaptable, without being unstable or chaotically confused." The way to achieve this is the regular exercise of mental aerobics.

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The Mental Aerobics website , will introduce you to the person who claims to have coined these words. Dr. Bert Hyslip writes, "Mental Aerobics is my own idea, developed in 1993 while I was working as a mental health counselor in a senior center, for use with older adults in a group setting." In addition to a conversation about academic studies regarding mental aerobics, Hyslip offers a number of sample specific activities to help readers increase their brain power but, in addition, a number of hyperlinks to sites that offer more brain play.

At Resources for Science Learning , in a fabulous essay, "What’s Your Brain Grade?" There is so much information at this site, that one quotation will not (can not!) do the essay justice, but here is one that I liked: "Throughout life, your neural networks reorganize and reinforce themselves in response to new stimuli and learning experiences. This body-mind interaction is what stimulates brain cells to grow and connect with each other in complex ways. They do so by extending branches of intricate nerve fibers called dendrites (from the Latin word for "tree"). These are the antennas through which neurons receive communication from each other."

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Copyright August, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC



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