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The Best Ways to Pump Up Your Mental Muscles

Boost Your Brainpower

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You eat right and exercise to keep your body in shape. But what are you doing for your brain? Just as yoga tightens your core and spinning tones your legs, there are specific, research-backed steps you can take to improve every aspect of your cognitive performance. It’s time to take a targeted approach to pumping up your mental muscles. [Tweet these tips!]

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Meditate to Tolerate Pain Better

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Meditation boosts your brain power from every angle: It helps you de-stress, it increases your memory, and ups your ability to focus. It can also help your brain in a way that helps your workout: Zenning out helps your brain have better control over processing pain and emotions, according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. After four 20-minute sessions, participants who had a 120 degree piece of metal touch their calf reported it 40 percent less painful and 57 percent less uncomfortable than before their training. Those kind of numbers could get you pretty far when you’re at mile 25 of a marathon or only halfway through your burpee set. (Find out all 17 Powerful Benefits of Meditation.)

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Use Your Left Hand to Stoke Creativity

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The right side of your brain includes your creativity centers. It also controls the left side of your body. By using your left hand (to write, to brush your teeth, etc.), you boost activity in that right hemisphere, which can improve your creativity scores nearly 50 percent, demonstrates a study from Israel. The study authors say some other brain functions like verbal or just clenching and unclenching your left hand could improve spatial ability.

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Tend a Garden to Squash Depression

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People suffering from the blues enjoyed significantly happier moods after three months of digging, planting, picking, and watering for six hours a week, shows a study from Norway. A bunch of research has linked spending time in nature to lower stress levels and improved mood, the authors explain. And researchers from the University of Bristol say exposure to some microorganisms in soil could trigger the release of serotonin—a fell-good brain chemical.

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Strength Train to Strengthen Memories

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It builds your mental muscles: 20 minutes of resistance exercise can boost your episodic memory performance—or your long-term memory about specific events—according to a study from the Georgia Institute of Technology. When people pumped iron right after looking at photos, they remembered 10 percent more two days later than those who didn’t hit the gym. And it’s not just weights—the researchers say bodyweight exercises would likely produce the same memory-boosting benefits.

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Drink Green Tea to Focus

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Theanine, an amino acid found almost exclusively in green tea leaves blocks the binding of certain chemicals to stress receptors in your brain, preventing anxiety from sapping your focus, shows Japanese research. Meanwhile, the caffeine in green tea fights fatigue and keeps you alert and attentive, shows a study in the Journal of Neuropharmacology.

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Play Tetris to Improve Your Mind’s Efficiency

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Manipulating tumbling blocks for a few minutes a day can expand your brain’s stockpiles of “gray matter,” shows research from the University of California, Irvine. Gray matter contains most of your brain’s neurons, which are involved in all mental tasks. Like a muscle that’s been strengthened with weights, pumping up your gray matter with Tetris is like injecting more power into your noodle, the research suggests.

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Jog to Multitask Better

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Sedentary adults who started jogging a few days a week improved their ability to juggle different tasks by 30 percent, found research from the University of Texas at Dallas. [Tweet this stat!] Exercise increases blood flow, which helps saturate your brain with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to operate at its best, the study authors say. Any physical activity done regularly should benefit your brainpower, they add.

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Nap to Solidify Your Memory

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After 40 minutes of sleep, people improved their scores on a memory game by 25 percent compared to those who hadn’t had a quick snooze, shows German research. While short-term memories are stored in your brain’s hippocampus, they’re “fragile” and easily lost, the study authors say. Sleep somehow transfers new memories to your noodle’s neocortex, where they’re stored more permanently, improving your ability to recall them, the authors explain.

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Text More for Better Motor Skills

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You may think technology at our fingertips is hurting our brains, but swiping on a smartphone can actually strengthen your brain: The thumb dexterity you develop using a touchscreen increases the activity and size of certain areas of your brain, reports a new study in the journal Current Biology. Compared to flip phone users, smartphone participants had completely different activity in their cerebral cortex—the part of the brain associated with voluntary movement, coordination of sensory information, and learning and memory.

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Swallow B Vitamins to Shut Out Alzheimer’s

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Older people who ate modest amounts of B vitamins every day for two years held onto nearly all of their brain’s gray matter, compared to a 3.7 percent drop in gray matter volume among people ingesting a placebo, shows a study from the University of Oxford. Research has tied loss of gray matter to dementia and Alzheimer’s. But B-vitamin-rich foods like dark green vegetables, eggs, meat, and fish may break down an amino acid called homocysteine, which appears to trigger age-related brain shrinkage, the Oxford study team says. (Find out more in Vitamin B12's Surprising Role in Brain Health.)

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Work Out Harder to Make Decisions Easier

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Compared to sedentary participants, people who exercised had 32 percent higher levels of a brain-derived protein (known as BDNF) in the body, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning. And those who worked at a vigorous intensity (80 percent of their max heart rate) and for more then 40 minutes had the highest changes of a significant BDNF elevation, according to a study from Weber State University in Utah.

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Drink Water to Speed Reaction Time

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Compared to thirsty people, reaction times jumped 14 percent among a better-hydrated group. Even mild dehydration appears to suck resources from your brain, Journal of Nutrition research shows. Water is so important for survival that your brain’s “Drink something!” warning system, which fires up when you’re thirsty, may draw resources from the rest of your noggin. The best way to monitor dehydration is to check your pee. If you haven’t gone for several hours, or if your urine is yellow (not clear), drink up, they say.

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Eat Sage for Better Recall

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An hour after ingesting sage, women’s scores on a word recall task jumped 35 percent. The U.K. researchers point to an antioxidant chemical called acetylcholine. Lower levels of this chemical have been charted among Alzheimer’s patients, and additional research has tied acetylcholine to memory function. The people in the study swallowed just 50 microliters of sage oil in capsule form—an amount so small that eating the herb in almost any amount should do the job.

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Change Your Routine to Boost Brainpower

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Whether you spend your free time scanning Facebook or solving Sudoku, the same mental tasks over and over again reinforce your brain’s synaptic connections related to those activities. That helps you get better (and requires less brainpower), shows research from McGill University. But as those synaptic connections grow stronger, the rest of your brain sits idle, becoming weaker, the researchers explain. To counteract this effect, switch up your routines—everything from your workout to your day-to-day activities, suggests a study from Concordia University. Even taking an unfamiliar route to work or cooking your dinner a different way helps fire up dormant brain pathways, which could increase IQ, memory, and other brain functions, studies suggest.

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De-stress to be Less Forgetful

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Those moments where you can’t remember where you put your keys or that lunch date you were supposed to have? Thank your hectic schedule: “Most short-term memory loss is stress-related,” says Carolyn Brockington, M.D., director of the Stroke Program at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. “We're all running around doing a million things, and although many people think they can multitask well, the brain sometimes has trouble moving from one thing to another and back again.” In order to commit something to memory, you need to concentrate more. Try these 15 Easy Ways to Beat Everyday Anxiety.

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Eat Vitamin-Rich Foods for Better Memory

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Almonds (like many nuts and seeds) have high levels of vitamin E, which has been shown to help reduce the risk of cognitive impairment. Blueberries are rich in flavonoids which improve spatial memory—your brain’s ability to retain the environment around you—and antioxidants, which lessen the inflammation that contributes to memory problems. Even chocolate’s rich antioxidant profile has been shown to help boost cognitive function, reduce the risk of dementia, and improve performance on brain teasers. What else should you fill your plate with? These 7 Brain Foods to Eat Every Day.

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