We all have heard that the brain, like a muscle, requires regular mental exercise to stay fit. Most people assume that this means hard work-learning a new language, attending university classes, etc.

There are fun and easier ways. The following "brain workouts" immediately exercise the brain and help you stay mentally sharp and agile, improving both memory and thinking skills.

Bonus: Similar types of brain workouts can help prevent later-life cognitive declines. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that people who spent the most time engaged in mentally stimulating activities, such as playing board games and writing for pleasure, were 63% less likely to develop dementia than those who did the least.

Activities to try…

  • Tap a tune. While imagining your favorite song, drum your fingers on a table or desktop to recreate the notes you are hearing in your head. This encourages the brain to coordinate memory, movement and auditory skills.

Expressing yourself this way cross-challenges the brain and causes it to activate different neural networks than the ones it normally uses.

  • Rework a word. Write down a multisyllable word, such as "resolution," "sufficient" or "beneficence." Then see how many other words you can come up with, using the letters of the original word. This exercise forces you to see familiar things the original word) in new ways. You can make it harder by giving yourself only two minutes to do the "word search." Timed activities encourage the use of different mental skills, such as speed, attention and flexibility.
  • Juggle. Some of the best mental activities also have a physical component. German researchers found that complex motor integration activities, such as juggling, increased the brain's white matter, tissue that is composed of nerve fibers that transmit information to different areas of the brain.

You can learn basic juggling techniques by watching Internet videos.

Helpful: Start with juggling lightweight scarves. They're easier for beginners to juggle than, say, tennis balls.

  • Wear your watch upside down. Can you tell what time it is when the numbers on your watch are reversed? It's harder than you think. This type of subtle change forces your brain to practice neurobics, activities that engage your attention and involve using one or more of your senses in a new way.

Another example: Using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth. It takes practice!

  • Doodle. Doodling does more than keep your hands busy. Using a pen or colored pencils to doodle or draw can change the ways in which you see your environment. It also requires mental focus to look closely at what's around you.

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