Everyone knows that if you want to run a marathon, do a triathlon, or be any kind of competitive athlete – you are going to have to train physically. You won’t be able to keep up with your competition or finish your race if all you’ve done for the past three months is sit on the couch binge watching (Walking Dead) and binge eating (cookie dough ice cream and Jalapeño Cheetos).
It seems pretty obvious that if you want to get physically fit you need to exercise your body. But what are you supposed to do in order to get mentally fit? I talk a lot about mental training, but what about brain training?
Your brain grows in a way that’s similar to how your muscles grow. You can stimulate muscular growth by increasing the amount of resistance, or in other words by increasing your workload, like you might do with weight training. When your muscles have to contract against an increased workload, you can build the strength of that muscle. Using your muscles in new ways can help muscular growth. This is also true for your brain. Your brain is made up of neurons and these neurons communicate with each other in order to problem-solve, to think, to make decisions, and to understand the world around you. The connections between these neurons are called synapses.
Increasing the workload on your brain is similar to increasing the amount of resistance to your muscles when you're working out. You can exercise your brain, just like you exercise your body. You “increase resistance” by introducing new information and activities to your brain. You challenge your brain to work in new ways, which increases the connections so your neurons can communicate about the new things you have learned. Anytime you challenge your brain with something new, you strengthen those synapses and even create new connections. Challenging your brain keeps you sharp and mentally focused, which is important whether you’re on the field, on the court, or in the classroom.
Here are some simple and fun brain-training activities to try out to help keep you sharp and focused:
Brain-Training Exercise #1
- Fold your hands together, while interlacing your fingers.
- Now look at your interlaced fingers and notice which thumb is on top. Is it your right thumb or your left thumb?
- Now pull your hands apart and put them back together again, changing the interlace of your fingers so that your other thumb is now the one on top.
- How does that feel? Does it feel natural? Awkward? Strange? Some people find it uncomfortable and weird to change the automatic way that they interlace their fingers. Pull your hands apart and interlace them immediately with the opposite thumb on top again. Was it easier this time?
Now try this one:
- Cross your arms in front of you across your chest.
- Look down at your arms and notice which arm is on top. Is it your right arm or your left arm?
- Now uncross your arms and cross them again the other way so your opposite arm is on top.
- How does that feel? Did you have trouble trying to figure out how to even cross your arms in the opposite way? Uncross your arms and cross them with the opposite arm again.
- How did it feel this time? Was it easier? Still awkward? If it was easier for either of these exercises the second time, it’s because you strengthened that neural connection.
You just completed a couple activities that challenged your brain by trying to do something with your non-dominant hand. Are you right-handed or left-handed? Or are you ambidextrous and can use both of your hands? Your dominant hand is the one that you automatically choose for certain tasks. Some of us always use our right hand or left hand and some use both, but usually stick to one hand or the other for certain tasks. Using your non-dominant hand in ways that you would usually use your dominant hand is a great way to challenge your brain. You are asking your brain to do something new and forcing it to adapt.
Brain-Training Exercise #2
- Ready to try something a little more challenging? Grab a piece of paper and something to write with. For these two activities, your dominant hand is the one that you usually write with.
- Place your non-dominant hand on top of the piece of paper. For example, if you’re right-handed, put your left hand on top of the paper and vice versa.
- Place the tip of your pen or pencil down on the paper on the outside of your pinky finger and trace the outline of your hand.
- Now you’re going to switch hands. Put your dominant hand on the piece of paper.
- Again, starting on the outside of your pinky, trace your dominant hand with your non-dominant hand.
- Are you noticing any differences in your focus using your dominant versus your non-dominant hand?
- Flip your paper over. On your piece of paper, with your dominant hand, draw a little stick figure like you would when you were a kid.
- Now, using the same hand, draw a little stick figure house next to your stick figure person, complete with a door and couple windows.
- Now try doing the same thing with your non-dominant hand. Draw another little stick figure standing next to a little stick-figure house.
OK – here’s your final brain challenge:
Find a spot on your paper where you can sign your name with your dominant hand.
Now try signing your name with your non-dominant hand.
Did that take a little longer? Do those signatures look exactly the same? More than likely, you had a much tougher time signing your name with your non-dominant hand.
You just spent the last several minutes exercising your brain and firing those neural connections to make them stronger. Nice work. Now’s your chance to take this brain training to the next level. Here's a list of some other activities you can try doing with your non-dominant hand this week. You can try out:
- Brushing your teeth
- Using the TV remote
- Controlling your computer mouse or scroll pad
- Pouring a drink
- Opening a jar
- Drawing or writing
You can choose any daily activity that you would naturally do with your dominant hand and switch it up. You can try it out with other routine activities too – like changing which leg you put into your pants first when you’re getting dressed, walking a different route to your classroom, shopping in the opposite order at the the grocery store, doing your shower routine in a different order; anything that shakes up your regular routine will be a brain exercise.
When you challenge your brain in new ways, it can activate different parts of your brain, which can help with staying mentally sharp and even help with thinking creatively. Try out doing a couple non-dominant hand exercises before working out or practice and see if it helps to sharpen your focus and think more creatively. Post a comment here and tell us about the fun challenges you've done to train your brain!