Kelli McKinney Grade school students – from kindergarten to high school – are often sent home at the end of the school year with invitations to all sorts of summer programs. You name the subject, and there’s probably a supercharged, extra awesome summer camp designed to sharpen the student’s skills and prepare them to impress teachers in the fall. But what about college students, you may ask…where’s their supercharged summer camp? After all, if you’re not actively practicing a skill, that skill is going to atrophy a little. In other words – you’ve got to use your brain to keep it sharp, whether you’re continuing/starting school in the fall or entering the job market. Unless college students enroll in summer coursework or sign up for an internship (both of which we recommend, by the way) – there’s only one camp program they can really count on, and that program’s name is Life. Once you flipped your graduation tassel and tossed your cap, you probably began building your own extra awesome network of resources. After all, if you’ve enrolled in an online degree program, enlisted in the military, started a job or started a family, you’ve already entered the lifelong process of building experiences. Another word for that is learning. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to engage the ol’ cranium. Here’s just a few ideas to start you off:
- Offer to start a business blog for your boss (friend, spouse, brother…). (Or, start a blog on a topic that interests you.) As you research, take photos, and write about the business, remember to stay focused on the positive. You want your blog to contribute to your work instead of creating controversy or losing customers. Blogging is a great way to learn and express yourself at the same time.
- Volunteer. Investigate local organizations whose work you appreciate or respect, and find out how you can get involved. Participating in volunteer work can be an eye-opening experience on many levels – and it helps your community support worthwhile causes.
- Read. So, this one is pretty much a given. But for some busy people, reading is a luxury activity that frequently falls by the wayside. Don’t let that happen to you. Whether you read newspapers, e-books, or traditional tomes, the key to preventing cobweb brain is to read, read, and read some more.
- Set goals. Small, achievable targets add up to big, impressive wins. Want to improve your vocabulary? Get a word-of-the-day app and read it when you wake up each morning. By the end of the summer, you will have learned (or at least read) about a hundred new words.
- Get out of your comfort zone. This doesn’t mean moving from the couch to the loveseat. This means try something new. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, expensive or newsworthy. It just has to be different for you. Mixing things up a little keeps you and your brain engaged, spurs creativity and can improve your problem-solving skills.
Kelli McKinney We all associate physical exercises with their physical health benefits. When you curl weights, you get toned biceps. Squats will yield tightened glutes and abs. Regular cardio exercise like jogging or aerobics improves your heart health. But did you know that regular physical activity can also help that oh-so-important organ that sits atop your neck? It doesn’t matter how old you are or what kind of physical abilities you already possess, the benefits of regular physical activity go beyond just the ability to fit into your favorite pair of jeans. BOOSTS BRAIN POWER When you exercise, you raise the level a certain chemical in your brain called “growth factors.” Growth factors promote the growth of new brain cells and connect pathways between existing brain cells, which helps us learn. When you’re thinking about complicated, coordinated movements like those involved in a sport or a dance class, you’re challenging your brain. This improves our capacity to learn. In a study by German researchers, high school students who spent 10 minutes doing a complicated exercise routine scored better on high-attention tasks than those who spent 10 minutes doing regular activity. Students who hadn’t exercised at all scored the lowest. FIGHTS THE EFFECTS OF STRESS A half hour of exercise releases chemicals in your brain that are proven to soothe – norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. Plus, it changes the way blood flows to your brain, disrupting that loop of stressful thoughts. Stress shows up in a number of ways, including the way our body ages. A 2010 study from the University of California San Francisco reports that self-described “stressed out” ladies who averaged 45 minutes of exercise during a three day period showed fewer signs of aging in their cells when compared to those who were also stressed out but remained inactive. DEFENDS AGAINST DEPRESSION Depression is a cruel disease that can – among other things – damage neurons in your brain. Although it’s not suggested as a substitute for medication or treatment, physical activity has been linked to reducing symptoms of depression by stimulating the growth of neurons in those regions affected by the disease. According to researchers, sustained exercise that burns 350 calories three times a week can reduce depression symptoms nearly as effectively as antidepressant medication. Plus, animal studies indicate that physical activity boosts production of molecules that improve connections between nerve cells – which acts as a natural antidepressant. MAINTAINS MENTAL FITNESS You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to gain lifelong benefit from regular exercise. Mild levels of activity – like short walks, cooking, cleaning, gardening – can keep your brain agile as you age. The Archives of Internal Medicine published a 2011 study by Canadian researchers who examined the brain function and energy levels of elderly adults for a period of two-to-five years. Those who were mildly active demonstrated the least decline – about 90 percent of them could remember and think just as well as they did when the study began. In an interview with US News, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, said “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning. Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain.” You don’t need to set aside huge chunks of time to increase your daily exercise. If you can’t make it to the gym on a regular basis, here are a few ways you can sneak in extra activity and get those brain-boosting effects.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Park a few spaces farther away from the door.
- Walk your dog.
- While you’re vacuuming, do lunges or squats.
- If you have a favorite TV show, do jumping jacks or crunches while you watch.