Strengthen the Muscle Between Your Ears

True fitness follows the adage "Use it or lose it." Turns out the brain follows the same rule.

    Photo: Illustration by Matt Mahurin

UNTIL RECENTLY, conventional medical wisdom could offer only a rough sketch of the life span of your brain. It went like this: Sometime around your 21st birthday, your gray matter peaked at full size, and as the years slipped by thereafter, nothing could prevent memory loss, the steady depletion of brain cells, and the sad, slow deterioration of your once zippy intellect. It was a prospect more depressing than a Poison reunion tour. Fortunately, it was also wrong. A recent batch of studies, including a long-term project from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in St. Louis, show that regardless of your age, you can reverse the downward spiral and continue to increase your capacity to learn. The key: training your brain as diligently as you do your body.

If you consistently exercise, you're already rewarding yourself with a cerebral supercharging. "People who work out regularly have better-functioning brains," says Dr. Richard Restak, a professor of neurology at George Washington University Medical Center. Brain experts have understood for years that general cardiovascular exercise increases the flow of blood and oxygen to your head, thereby enhancing brain function. Restak, 60, has spent the better part of two decades refining this idea. In the process of writing and researching more than a dozen books stressing the correlation between a fit brain and a well-tuned body—including the best-selling The Secret Life of the Brain—he's used the latest scientific findings to design efficient brain-boosting regimens. For outdoor athletes, that means balance drills and hand-eye challenges that improve the synergy between your brain and muscles.
Restak is also an expert on ramping up brain function through mental training. After years spent studying the cognitive abilities of subjects ranging from fighter pilots to musicians, he developed the idea that the brain is a dynamic structure that can be improved when challenged. It's no crackpot theory. Recent studies from several of the world's top brain research centers have revealed that adding a steady dose of intellectual bench-pressing—brain teasers, anagrams, riddles, or memory games—can enable you to continually upgrade your ability to learn and access improved mental performance for outdoor sports. "Where sheer mental agility is concerned," says Restak, "our brain capacity can keep expanding as long as we live." As the world's premier personal coach for your gray matter, he can show you the way.

Here's Restak's two-part approach to brain development—physical and mental—which you can effortlessly incorporate into your existing workout plan. But if you're still balking at the hard work, here's a quick review of the alternative: brain shrinkage. Just as it does to your muscles, neglect will take an ugly toll on your intellect. The choice, my fine mental midgets, is yours.

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