Are you exercising your brain? Tips to help you improve your cognitive health

By Phyllis Picklesimer
Media/Communications Specialist, University of Illinois College of ACES News and Public Affairs

URBANA, Ill. — When someone asks you to think about health, wellness and fitness, you usually think about physical health, exercise or nutrition. But, as you age, you should also work on your cognitive or brain health, said a University of Illinois Extension family life educator.

Our cognitive health can be described as the ability to think, reason and remember,” said Cheri Burcham. “As we age, like the rest of our bodies, our brains slow down and become less flexible and accurate.”

According to Burcham, there are a few things you can do to maintain a healthy brain. Getting enough good, high-quality sleep is important, along with eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly.

I have heard the phrase ‘What’s good for the heart is good for the brain’ more than once while working with this topic,” she said. “Lowering stress levels and keeping solid social connections and support also contribute to achieving good brain health.”

Researchers agree that challenging your brain daily is also beneficial and necessary to maintain brain health and delay cognitive decline as we get older, she said.

Brain fitness is a very hot topic right now,” she said. “I recently entered this term in the search engine Bing and found 191 million results!”

Experts agree we need to challenge our brains with many different activities. It is essential to reach beyond what is comfortable and try new exercises and activities that are interesting, varied and make us think a little more, she said.

If an activity becomes too easy, we aren’t really exercising anymore,” she said. “Adjust the level of difficulty until you feel challenged again. If you enjoy seek-a-word puzzles and have done so many that they are becoming very easy to do, try doing a different variety of the puzzle, like finding the words spelled backwards, or switch to finding number sequences instead.”

You may want to switch to something totally new like Sudoku or crossword puzzles, she added.

Variety is also key because the brain has many different areas to keep fit,” Burcham said. “Just as we wouldn’t be considered physically fit if we exercised only our legs, we can’t achieve total brain health if we focus only on one area, such as short-term memory. We also have to exercise critical thinking, spatial reasoning and long-term memory.”

Do you have to take a class to practice brain fitness? Absolutely not, she said. According to the expert, there are many ways to practice brain fitness, including board games or cards, crossword or number puzzles, dancing, jigsaw puzzles, reading, traveling, journaling, woodworking or other hobbies, and conversing.

You’re never too old to get started, but the earlier you begin, the better. What are you waiting for? Start your brain workout right away!” she said.

For more about this topic or other family life-related topics, contact Burcham at University of Illinois Extension at (217) 543-3755 or at

From the Nov. 14-20, 2012, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!