We all want to be smarter and healthier. Not surprisingly, a strong mind and a healthy body are fundamentally linked. Our mental processes can affect our physical state, and the reverse is also true.
Finding ways to build and support both our minds and our bodies is crucial to reaching our goals, and to increasing our overall happiness, success and feelings of well-being. But no one becomes smarter or healthier overnight. It takes time and genuine commitment.
Start working toward building a robust mind and body with these 13 daily challenges that will test your limits and push you to be your absolute best.
1. Increase brain plasticity by playing an instrument
Research suggests that regularly playing a musical instrument changes the shape and power of the brain, and may improve cognitive skills. It has been shown to increase IQ by seven points in both children and adults. Learning to play an instrument increases the plasticity of the brain. Musicians’ brains are structurally and functionally different from those of non-musicians.
For instance, the parts of the brain that control motor skills, hearing, storing audio information and memory become larger and more active when a person learns how to play an instrument. Playing an instrument has also been shown to increase alertness and emotional perception.
2. Stay sharp by reading books
Studies show that reading books, no matter the type, increases your language comprehension and vocabulary, and boosts brain activity. Reading has been shown to help you stay sharp, and reading fiction in particular has been linked to increased empathy, emotional intelligence and social support.
Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Neurology found that people who engaged in mentally stimulating activities like reading experienced slower memory decline as they aged.
3. Untangle your mind by writing
Like reading, writing encourages vocabulary growth, grammar and language skills, and use of proper syntax. But even more importantly, writing helps us untangle our messy minds and allows for clearer thinking. Writing helps us learn more by improving our ability to absorb information.
Our brains more effectively store information we write down, improving our recall and memory. Students who take notes longhand during class consistently score better on tests. Writing forces a person to pay attention to their memories, experiences and internal dialogues – a combination that increases brain function.
4. Boost brain cell health through exercise
Studies consistently show that people who exercise regularly are healthier and have higher IQ scores. Exercise is an important part of maintaining a strong body and feeling energised. People who exercise regularly think more clearly and are better at coming up with new ideas.
Physical activity has been shown to affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and even the abundance of new brain cells. During vigorous exercise, a process called neurogenesis occurs, which increases the production of neurotransmitters. Exercise also causes the body to release dopamine, which is why active people generally have less stress, better concentration and more energy.
5. Socialise to increase intellectual performance
There’s a good reason why socialising is such an important part of our lives – it turns out those friendly gatherings can actually increase our intellectual performance. Researchers believe that social interactions “exercise” our cognitive processes, so people who connect socially and mentally with others receive immediate intellectual boosts.
Those who engage in social interactions with others have higher levels of cognitive performance than those who don’t. The study found that people can reap these benefits from just 10 minutes of social interaction.
6. Drink plenty of water to fuel body and mind
Staying hydrated is crucial to overall health. Drinking water is a natural pick-me-up, while dehydration leaves you depleted and tired. When your body has plenty of fluids, your heart will pump blood more efficiently through your body, delivering important oxygen and nutrients to all your cells.
Our brains also depend on proper hydration to function optimally. Dehydration disrupts the delicate balance required for brain cells to operate, causing your brain to function less efficiently. Dehydration can impair short-term memory function and long-term memory recall.
7. Harness the protégé effect to help you learn
Learning by teaching goes back to ancient times, but modern researchers have discovered exactly why it works. It has to do with the “protégé effect,” in which students who teach their study material to others perform better on tests than those who learn for the sake of learning. Teaching improves your understanding, knowledge and retention of a subject. This is because it takes a greater comprehensive understanding of the material to teach it, and teaching the material increases your motivation to learn it.
While it’s nice if you can impart your knowledge to someone else, it’s not necessary. One technique is to simply pretend to explain material to someone – try explaining the subject out loud. The more you feel like you’re teaching, the more you will benefit from the protégé effect.
8. Make smart diet choices to support your body and mind
Making smart food choices is not only good for your body; it can help stimulate your mind as well. The right foods will support your brain function, boosting your concentration and improving your learning. Eating a diet rich in nutrients and vitamins can help you feel more energised so you can focus.
Some of the best “superfoods” include blueberries, tomatoes, fish and whole grains. Coffee has been shown to increase alertness and improve mood, and turmeric has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
9. Hone athletic skills for improved brain performance
Practicing athletics isn’t just a good way to exercise your body; it’s actually a great way to improve your brain’s performance. Research has shown that children who are active in athletics typically do better in school and have a better chance of continuing their education after high school.
That’s because athletes are building their brains every time they have to make complicated decisions in a split second. Different types of athletics require you to master both conscious and unconscious decision making. Research shows that athletes’ actions are more than a set of automatic responses; they are part of a dynamic strategy to deal with an ever-changing mix of intricate challenges.
10. Sleep to help you remember
In our rushed and busy world, it’s easy to overlook nature’s best (and absolutely free) cognitive enhancer: sleep. We all know sleep is crucial to helping us stay alert and focused. However, you should recognise that it’s also key to helping us learn new things. Research shows that sleep enhances our memories, and different phases of sleep consolidate different types of memory.
We know from recordings of brain activity that the patterns in which our neurons fire when we’re learning during the day are frequently replayed when we’re asleep. This is the brain’s way of rehearsing things it has learned throughout the day.
11. Learn a new language to increase problem-solving skills
Knowing how to speak more than one language is increasingly important in our globalised world, but being bilingual also has the benefit of making you smarter. Learning another language has profound effects on your brain, improving cognitive skills that are unrelated to language.
People who are bilingual are better at solving mental puzzles. Research shows being bilingual improves the brain’s “executive function” – the command system for planning, solving problems and other mentally demanding tasks.
12. Break out of your comfort zone for maximised performance
We all have a comfort zone. It’s our familiar routine, where we know what to anticipate and how to react. This state of relative comfort creates a steady level of performance – we function at a constant, even pace.
But maximising our performance requires us to be in a state of “optimal anxiety,” which is just outside our comfort zone. Finding this state is a balancing act. Push it too far, and our distress skyrockets, causing our performance to drop off.
The trick is to break out of your comfort zone and push yourself to do things differently every day. Recalibrate your reality by trying something new, but not to the point where you’re on anxiety overload. Finding this sweet spot will help you increase your performance and enhance productivity, and will make it easier to brainstorm and harness your creativity.
13. Adopt a learning mind to broaden your knowledge
Pushing your brain to learn new concepts can be an amazing workout for your mind. When you tackle a subject area you don’t know, you effectively stretch your brain and help it build new brain cells and increase pathways between them.
Focus on cultivating a curious mind by asking questions. Commit to becoming a lifelong learner. Expose yourself to different world views, be curious about different cultures, continue to take courses (either online or in person) and always seek to broaden your horizons. Continue to do all these things, and you will indeed grow smarter and healthier over time.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.