In our hectic daily lives, it's important to take the time to wind down and recharge our mental and physical batteries.
Also equally important is doing a few activities or hobbies that help you enhance your mental function and capabilities, whether it be for professional or personal reasons. In fact, how we spend our free time can be crucial to the rest of our lives.
Hobbies that stimulate our mind can help us not only relax but also become smarter, wiser and more resilient in the process. Here we look at nine free time activities recommended by scientists that will help you flex your brain muscles.
1. Take Up a Musical Instrument
Research shows that no matter what instrument is chosen, overall brain function is improved. It allows us to strengthen the corpus callosum, which is a thick band containing a bundle of nerve fibers that links both halves of the human brain.
A group of researchers published a 15-month study in 2012 looking at corpus callosum size differences in musicians and non-musicians, and the verdict: the corpus callosum in musicians was of a far larger size. Sure, it will be a bit of challenge in the beginning to make time for practice, but over time the brain benefits and newfound confidence from making music will outweigh the time pressure limitations.
2. A Physical Workout Gives Your Brain a Workout
Many researchers essentially think of exercise as an important food for the brain. Just a bit of regular exercise, from low-impact to high-impact depending on age, lifestyle and other factors, will contribute to improved cognitive function. A study published in the Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism journal suggests that exercise acts to facilitate cell functions by generating reactive oxygen species, which act to inhibit or delay the onset of certain neurogenerative diseases. So, live by the motto of Healthy Body, Healthy Mind.
3. Change up Your Learning Style
Cumulative learning, based on the concept of building a language to better sustain it over time, rewires our brain to shift those easily forgotten items in our short-term memory to the long-term memory with greater ease. It involves shifting from a quick memorization-centered learning towards a style that embraces more holistic learning. With a few adjustments like keeping records of observations or tidbits of knowledge in real time with a journal or mobile device, the brain's processing of info over time will improve.
4. Meditate a Few Minutes Every Day
There is a growing belief in the scientific community that developing a compassionate brain or compassionate state of mind--which benefits ourselves and those around us--is based on meditation, which calls for our brains to generate specific brain waves by focusing on them during meditation. This was confirmed more than 25 years ago in 1992, when the Dalai Lama's brain waves were studied during meditation, with the verdict of compassionate mind reached by the scientists present. So, choose a mantra that suits you and tries taking a few minutes each day to repeat, refocus and recenter.
5. Pick Up a Language
A group of researchers based in Italy published a study in which they observed bilingual people with mild cases of Alzheimer's and found that for all of us, the advantage of speaking two languages is building up the cognitive reserve. This means that with every new language we learn, we are storing away brain functioning tools for later use. In the same way, we invest money in a bank, consider investing in your mind for a rainy day.
6. Grab a Book
It seems there is wisdom to the old expression Reading is fundamental, but in this case, it also is good for the mind. Thanks to the focus and relaxed state that is created when sitting down with a good book, reading can lower the blood pressure better than traditional methods like drinking a glass of tea or chilling out to a mellow tune. A growing body of research suggests that it also helps in the development of the three types of intelligence: fluid, crystallized and emotional. Be sure to always pack one in your bag for those moments in between daily activities.
7. Give Your Brain a Workout
In many ways, having a lazy brain is infinitely worse than having a lazy mind. Various word games, memory games, and puzzles such as crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, card games, sudoku and even riddles all help increase neuroplasticity, which related to how flexible the brain is in changing itself throughout our lifetime by forming new neural connections. So besides the joy of wrapping up a puzzle, you'll also have the added satisfaction of knowing you've made your brain a bit stronger.
8. Set Up Your Own Garden
Due to the multi-tasking requirements for good gardening, such as mapping out the area, and using brain power to keep track of and maintain a healthy growth cycle for the various plants, it's no wonder that there are a number of mental benefits to the activity. And no worries: you don't need to be a green thumb to reap the advantages. Besides all the Vitamin D you'll soak in from the sun every time you travel outside to check on your plants--or start new one--you'll also be reducing stress levels. There is even evidence that the activity can play a role in decreasing the chances of dementia.
9. Get a Pet
Besides serving as lovely companions, pets benefit our mental health in the long run by increasing empathy. Research suggests that when we see something happen to a loved one like a pet, our visual cortex--the visual information processing region of the brain, is activated and internally we begin to "activate our own emotions and sensations as if we felt the same," according to Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam. All this suggests that owning a pet is sure to increase our emotional and cerebral.