The lazy person’s guide to a healthy brain
healthy brain

June 24, 2021

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Now that the summer holiday is around the corner it is time to relax and unwind. After all the exams and deadlines of the past weeks, some downtime to enjoy the weather, lay down in the park, or go out with friends is well deserved.  However, once the new year has started after weeks of just slacking around during the summer, studying or working can be quite challenging and tiresome. Your brain just isn’t used to be stimulated anymore. And even though you intended to stay healthy by sleeping a lot, eating healthy, and exercising, sometimes – especially when you are on vacation – it just didn’t happen as much as you would have liked. However, staying mentally sharp helps to maintain a healthy brain and makes the transition from doing nothing to working or studying a lot easier. Therefore, in this article, you’ll find a few simple exercises for your brain that you can do during the summer that don’t take up any energy and you can do where ever you are.

Firstly, read a book this summer. By reading a book you’ll improve your vocabulary, which not only makes you sound smarter but has also proved to be good for your brain. Research found that many regions of the brain are correlated with vocabulary and vocabulary acquisition. In particular, areas important for visual and auditory processing. Hence, if you are reading a book during the summer, try to focus on some new words that you encounter, thereby stimulating your brain even more. Secondly, try to do a few puzzles or games. This isn’t only fun, but according to neuropsychologist Erik Scherder, making puzzles is also very good for your mental fitness. It is important, however, to keep challenging yourself. Scherder states that this so-called ‘mental effort’ is very important when exercising your brain. It stimulates the metabolism in your brain and increases your blood flow which are both very important for strengthening and forming connections in your brain. Additionally, mental stimulation builds up a cognitive reserve that helps the mind’s resilience against future cell loss. Therefore, make a sudoku or crossword puzzle this summer and challenge yourself.

However, reading a book or making puzzles might already be too much effort for some while on vacation. In that case, taking a power nap could really improve your mental fitness. Taking a nap once in a while improves alertness, memory, performance and helps with learning. According to the Mayo Clinic, the optimal time of day for a nap is in the afternoon between 2 and 3 p.m. During this time you will most probably experience a low level of alertness following lunch, yet it will not interfere with your nighttime sleep. After 30 minutes of napping your enter into deep slow-wave sleep. Waking up from such a nap might result in ‘sleep inertia’, the transitional state between being asleep and being awake which is often paired with an unpleasant, disoriented, and groggy feeling.  The ideal length for a nap is, therefore, between 10 and 30 minutes. However, since you’ll probably have all the time in the world when you are on vacation, you can also complete an entire sleep cycle and take a 90 minute nap. Sleep scientist Sara Mednick says these “epic naps” can aid emotional and procedural memory while resulting in a minimal amount of sleep inertia. Hence, if being in the sun all day has drained you, take a quick nap. If you still feel a bit groggy when you wake up, take a walk, eat some fruit, splash some water in your face or brush your teeth and you’ll most likely feel better right away.

Of course, it is also important to go out and experience the world now and then. In such an instance,  a study from 2015 suggests that activities that include all your senses could help strengthen your brain more than activities focusing on one of the senses. They found that multi-sensory stimuli interacted in the [expand title=”working memory”] Working memory is a cognitive system that can hold information temporarily and has an executive function. It is important for reasoning, the guidance of decision-making, and organizing long-term memory. [/expand] beyond what would be expected from the sensory-specific stimuli. Therefore, health and fitness writer Sara Lindberg recommends you visit a farmer’s market, bake something in the kitchen or try out a new restaurant while focusing on smelling, tasting, seeing, feeling, and hearing at the same time.  Furthermore, when traveling to new places, try taking a new route or mode of transportation every time. Research from the Institute of Neurology found that the topographical memory system triggered many different brain regions, more than baseline or other nontopographical memory tasks did. Hence, this suggests that the processing of spatial layouts helps to keep your brain healthy.

Finally, do not forget to do nothing once in a while. Even though long periods of underutilization are bad for the brain, sometimes doing nothing and being bored may be invaluable as well. According to a recent paper called Doing Nothing and Nothing To Do: The Hidden value of Empty Time and Boredom, inactive states of mind can be fruitful for future bursts of creativity. By doing nothing, your brain has time for free unconscious thoughts and specifically these processes can generate new ideas and solutions more effectively than a conscious thought focused on problem-solving. Therefore, when you are not exercising your brain this summer, do nothing and enjoy some well-deserved boredom.

This article is written by Fenna Beentjes

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