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Train your brain

You might wonder if your neurons would fire more quickly—or your synapses wire more thickly—if you played math games and puzzles on one of the dozens of brain-training apps you can download in seconds on your phone. Fun, easy and effective, right?

Sorry folks. While there is still a lot we don’t know about training your brain or helping to heal injured brains with computer exercises, the best current evidence says the answer to boosting your brain power is lower tech than that.

Dal cognitive neuro-psychologist Dr. Gail Eskes shared the latest science-backed evidence on how we can train our brains for better performance—faster processing, better retention, more incisive reasoning—and as it turns out, keeping your mind sharp has more to do with sweating it out in the real world than jumping through virtual hoops. So pick up your sneakers and put down your phone. The quest for a better brain begins with basic smart-brain habits.

Move your body LOTS: “Physical activity—moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise, at least 150 minutes a week—is one of the most important things you can do to keep your brain working at peak efficiency,” says Dr. Eskes. Exercise delivers a boost of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and releases brain chemicals that tone down our stress and help us sleep better. These are all crucial to our cognitive functioning, not just as we age, but at any age.

According to Dr. Eskes, our brains benefit most when we choose physical activities we enjoy because, well, we will do them. The benefits are even greater when we mix it up, try new things and push ourselves a little.

Dig into active learning: Learning by watching, listening or even reading is not nearly as beneficial for firing and wiring the brain as learning by doing. “Active learning, where you engage deeply with the material and physically practice a new skill, is best for boosting results,” Dr. Eskes notes. “Learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument are two great examples. And you never want to stop learning, it’s something we have to keep doing all our lives to keep our brains working well.”

Note to students: Learning in small chunks over time, reviewing information and practicing new skills often is far more effective than cramming large amounts of information all at once.

Get smart with a little help from your friends: There is something about interacting with other people that stimulates our brains—as if forming connections with other people helps to form connections within our white and gray matter.

“Volunteering, working in teams, going to a class with a friend, organizing and taking part in social events: these are all powerfully beneficial not only for our mental and emotional health but for our brains themselves,” notes Dr. Eskes.

Get plenty of ZZZZZs: Plenty of sleep is fundamental to the integrity of the brain, Dr. Eskes says. Deep sleep allows the brain to regenerate and integrate new learning. Substances like alcohol can interfere with sleep cycles if taken too close to bedtime, though, so skip that nightcap, she warns. And, while caffeine can improve our processing speed during the day, it can also keep us from dropping into deep-enough sleep in the night. So, take a pass on that afternoon espresso pick-me-up!

Eat brain-boosting foods: Our brains thrive on healthy fats in fish, nuts, avocados and seeds, and on vitamins and minerals in fresh vegetables, berries, fruits and whole grains. “You just can’t overlook the importance of nutrition on the functioning of the brain,” Dr. Eskes says. “This includes drinking lots of water.” Your brain will thank you if you keep your intake of salt, sugar, alcohol and red meat relatively low.

Focus your attention: Forget multi-tasking: it’s overstimulating for the brain and makes you easy to distract. “If you want to improve your attention, you have to practice pushing away distractions and focusing on one thing at a time,” Dr. Eskes says. “The brain was not built to be an efficient multi-tasker—put away your cell phone when you’re driving and turn off distractions when you need to focus.”

Set goals for yourself: Setting goals and planning how you will achieve them is a great workout for your executive brain function, Dr. Eskes says. “Breaking down a large undertaking into a series of smaller tasks and organizing those tasks will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “It’s also very important to take a balanced, goal-driven approach to designing your lifestyle to support the best possible health of your brain.”

Improve memory skills with practice: There are many tricks and games you can use to build your memory skills. The most effective use imagery to brand the information clearly in your mind’s eye, Dr. Eskes says. For example, to remember a grocery list, imagine string beans in your hair, cauliflower in your ears and almonds in your eyes—whatever striking images match your list. When meeting new people, notice distinguishing traits that trigger a response in you, and make up memorable names to boost your recall: “Jumpy Jamie,” “Bubbly Barbara,” “Red-Haired Claire,” whatever works for you.

And don’t forget mnemonics! For example, My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto).

Be mindful in your daily life: Are you forever looking for your glasses, cell phone or your keys? Being mindful in your day-to-day life—literally paying attention to what you are doing while you are doing it and avoiding getting “lost in thought”—is a powerful way to keep track of your possessions and reduce stress.

“If you are running around and ruminating on problems, instead of calmly focusing on what you are doing in the present moment, you will create more stress by losing or forgetting things or making mistakes,” Dr. Eskes notes. “You will also keep your brain in an agitated state that is not conducive to focusing, learning, remembering or planning.”

Relax!: A certain amount of stress can motivate us to get things done, but intense and prolonged stress damages the brain. “Chronic stress puts a lot of wear and tear on the brain,” Dr. Eskes says. “It’s really important to find ways of reducing and managing our stress and building resiliency in our bodies and brains.”

Meditation is a time-honoured way to release tension and train the brain to be relaxed and alert at the same time. If meditation doesn’t interest you, there are other options: physical activities, socializing, hobbies and listening to music are all great for relaxing.

“People want the newest game or pill, but that’s not what works,” Dr. Eskes says. “There’s more evidence than ever that our daily lifestyle habits—and therefore, our overall health—have the greatest impact on our brain health and cognitive function over time. These changes are hard work to maintain in the face of pressures and distractions, but so worth the effort.”