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You Need an Exercise Routine for Your Brain

The brains of these older men and women held the answer to a question neuroscience researchers believed they could unlock: Does a life of stressful and demanding work actually make you mentally healthy?
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This article was originally published at Riskology.co

More than 1,000 retired workers, all aged 75 or above, stood in line. They were about to sit down to a barrage of tests judging their memory and thinking skills. The tests were grueling, and it was only the beginning. For eight years, these retirees would line up every 18 months for the same battery of tests and evaluations, almost as if they were migratory birds following their instincts.

But they weren't compelled to subject themselves to the draining tasks and judgments. No, they volunteered -- and for good reason.

The brains of these older men and women held the answer to a question neuroscience researchers believed they could unlock: Does a life of stressful and demanding work actually make you mentally healthy?

After eight years of tireless study, sifting through mountains of data, and controlling for every possible variable, they had their answer:

Your life of constant stressors that require fast thinking, prioritizing, and decision making -- the things you complain leave you exhausted every day after work -- are actually making your brain stronger and preparing it for top performance for years to come.

If you ever worry about the stress and constant juggling of priorities in your life... that's probably good. You don't want it to become unhealthy. But you don't want to eliminate it, either. Your difficult work -- the things you struggle with but are proud to accomplish -- are actually keeping you healthy for a lifetime.

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Image courtesy of A Health Blog.

Why Difficult Work Makes You Stronger

When you go to the gym, your muscles get bigger and your body grows stronger. Everyone knows this, and the path to creating physical health is well-established (even if we struggle to follow it). If you do it regularly, you can expect to enjoy a capable body as you grow old.

It makes sense, intuitively, that the same would be true of your mind. Exercise it regularly and it ought to also grow stronger, sharper.

While the analogy rings true, most health advice you read today suggests the opposite. Don't overdo it at work. Lower your stress. Regularly take your mind off the hard things. It's good advice -- too much stress is terrible for you, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

What the eight-year study by neuroscientists at the University of Leipzig found is that forcing your brain to work on difficult problems and juggle a variety of tasks -- when done with care -- really is akin to lifting weights with your brain. [1]

The thousands of men and women they studied were given the same mental agility tests year after year and, without a bias for race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and a myriad of other potential confounding variables, those who spent their days exercising their brains performed measurably better.

We know hard work leads to accomplishment. Now we know it leads to a healthier mind with more longevity, too.

The question is, what can you do to maximize the benefits of your difficult work?

How To Strengthen Your Mind Every Day

If it isn't obvious by now, the answer to maxing out your brain's performance abilities for the rest of your life lies in how you exercise it -- just like your body. That means building a brain-exercise routine will probably be successful if it mirrors the most successful ways to create any other routine.

In the beginning, that means creating a schedule you stick to until you've formed a habit. Then, working to merge it into every aspect of your daily life. Here are a few ways you could maximize the exercise your brain is getting in the different areas of your life.

  1. At work. Attack your big challenges first. Don't waste your mornings with routine, repetitive tasks. Instead, tackle your legacy work. Finding time to work on all the other things will also help you refine your executive functions.
  1. At home. Don't sit and watch TV at the end of the day. Instead, train yourself to take on more challenging hobbies. Do a crossword puzzle, play Sudoku, make home improvement plans. These are the things that keep your brain healthy.
  1. In relationships. Don't shy away from difficult conversations with your partner or friends. Tackling them together will improve the performance of your brain (and probably of your relationship, too). Discuss big ideas and how to bring them to life.

Just like lifting weights, growth happens when you push yourself a little further than you thought you could. Watch your stress levels, and keep them in check. But don't shy away from big challenges. The science says the more you take on, the longer you'll get to enjoy them.

Tyler Tervooren founded Riskology.co, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.

Footnotes:

The inspiration for this piece comes from this NPR report on the original research from Leipzig University.