At this point, most people are aware of the benefits of physical exercise. It doesn’t mean we actually act on it—$1.8 billion spent on unused gym memberships in the U.S. only—but we do know physical activity is good for us.
What about mental exercise? Shouldn’t we train our brains, too?
Building mental strength is not too different from building physical strength. It’s all about consistency. Training a few minutes a day can help you be more creative, more productive, and more resilient. Having a mental exercise routine also helps you improve your thinking, focus, and memory.
As always, you will find links to the corresponding research papers should you want to read more about the science behind these mental training tips.
Do mental push ups
The same way you would take a few minutes to do a few push ups, there are simple, quick mental activities you can do to exercise your brain. Similar to a gym regimen, you need to find what works best for you, and it’s good to mix it up.
- Write one thing you’re grateful for. Science has shown that you can physically alter the makeup of your brain by practicing gratitude, with significantly positive effects on wellbeing. It doesn’t need to be formal, but you can keep a gratitude journal. I like this one because it’s only a couple of lines per day and you can revisit what happened on that day up to five years later.
- Do a one-minute mindfulness practice. Notice the posture that you’re in. Take a deep breath. Focus on what’s going on around you. Research has shown that mindfulness is good for both your body and your mind. If you need guidance, Mindful Magazine has lots of free mindfulness tracks on their SoundCloud.
- Test your recall. The process of retrieving a memory will not only make it more accessible in the future, but will also make you a better learner, studies show. Don’t try to cram a lot of content into your mind. Write down a short list of things you’d like to remember, and test how many of them you can remember an hour later.
Write for yourself
You don’t need to feel like you’re good at writing to benefit from the practice. Research has shown that writing has positive effects on both our psychological and mental health. You could write about anything, but expressive writing seems to be the most effective.
Expressive writing consists in writing about your emotional experiences. James W. Pennebaker, the social psychologist who devised the method, suggests to do the following exercise for 20 minutes each day for four consecutive days:
- Choose a topic. It should be personal, emotional, and important to you.
- Write for yourself. Do not imagine your writing being read by other people.
- Let go. Don’t worry about style, spelling, punctuation, or grammar.
That’s it. After four days, you can put it away, and come back to it later once you feel ready to reflect on it, but it’s not mandatory. The benefits lie in the exercise itself. If you feel empty or sad after a session, that’s completely normal, and it’s actually good for your brain to experience these emotions—it means you’re aware. If you want to learn more, you can read James W. Pennebaker’s book.
Learn something new
There are many, many benefits to learning something new. In fact, research shows that it’s one of the best ways to keep your brain sharp. It may also help you cope with stress. So how can you go about learning something new?
- Read a book
- Listen to a podcast
- Take an online course
- Have a friendly debate
- Learn a new language
- Watch a TED video
- Learn a new skill
- Teach someone
You don’t need to work with an art therapist to get therapeutic benefits from creative activities. Science shows that practicing activities such as music, drawing, arts and crafts stimulate our brain in a way that enhances our health and well-being. These activities also have a positive impact on our emotional resilience.
It’s become so much easier to find a craft club or artistic activities to do in your neighbourhood, or you could just buy some supplies and give it a go with the help of online tutorials. If you want some inspiration, the book 365 Days of Art by Lorna Scobie offers one creative activity per day for a year.
→ Read more: 7 books to increase your creativity
Get some rest
All athletes need to rest. No need to spend all of your time in your mental gym. Not only there is strong evidence that taking a short rest—no checking your emails or surfing the web—can help you improve your memory, but sleep is overall great for you.
So make sure to get enough sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, these are the optimal amount of sleep you should get based on your age:
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours sleep
- Adults (18-64): 7-9 hours sleep
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours sleep
Building your own mental gym takes time to figure out exactly what works for you. The most important aspect is to stay aware of our mental wellness, and to keep our brain stimulated with activities that improve our creativity, productivity, and ultimately, our happiness. While remembering that it’s equally important to know when to take a break!
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.