The key to living a longer, happier life is having something to look forward to; a reason to get out of bed every day.
Studies have shown that the biggest contributing factor to mental acuity
isn't exercise or diet, or even healthy lifestyle habits.
Learning a new craft, falling in love again, taking up a new sport
or cause, or solving new problems are all powerful antidotes to pessimism. And they all help to keep your brain healthy by creating new neural connections.
Optimism isn't always necessarily being cheerful or looking at the glass half full. Optimism is also a function. When you believe that you can solve problems, remove obstacles, your brain becomes wired for those tasks.
If you lose hope, those circuits in your brain that normally would be firing synapses— making new connections, planning and plotting out a future—begin to shut down. Despair literally ages your brain.
With nothing to look forward to or no new problems to solve, your brain has nothing to work out; literally, you're depriving your brain of its workout.
One of the things young students and older adults have in common is working toward an objective. At the Benjamin School for Character Education
, students focus on a single project that they work on for one year. Older adults can set the same goals for themselves.
For young people, having their "whole life ahead of you" isn't necessarily blissful freedom. For youth, their optimism has yet to be cultured. From a young person's perspective, what lies before them are the stressful tasks of having to prove oneself, do the studies, compete for careers, work hard to survive, fit in with their peers.
Older adults who have already set and achieved, or failed, at many goals over time, have the advantage of experience. All of their victories and defeats, successes and failures have built up their brain's resilience muscles. And optimism was the driver.
"Age is not a choice; healthy living is," Brain Education creator and author Ilchi Lee writes in his book In Full Bloom: A Brain Education Guide for Successful Aging
. "The lifestyle choices we make today play a large role in determining how sharp our minds and memories will be tomorrow."
Our brains have three distinct areas, Lee explains: The lower brain, home to our most
primitive instincts; the mid-brain or limbic system, which controls memory and emotions; and the upper brain or neocortex, which is the seat of higher thinking, writing and language, our ability to reason and analyze, and our power to anticipate the future.
These three areas are deeply interconnected, linking thought, emotion, memory, and action
in complex ways. This network of nerves has the potential to make our brains agile and perceptive and our emotional lives rich and rewarding no matter how old we are.
As we age, our brain health and function can atrophy, if we let it. But, with these invigorating brain and body exercises, you can put the bloom of youth back into your cheeks, and your neural pathways, for a long life to come!
Here are five exercises for helping you tap into your brain's unlimited potential, no matter how many candles sit atop your birthday cake:
1. Who Am I Now? Pop Quiz
Challenge yourself to these following questions. The questions may not be easy to answer, but your brain is equal to any task. Your years of experience will give you the knowledge to answer them. The key is to trust yourself, not to shy away from what your deep self-exploration tells you. You have seen much and have deep insight. Trust your ancient wisdom.
2. Bounce ‘n’ Sweep
- What kind of person do I want to become?
- What do I want my later life to be like?
- What are my goals?
- What past pain am I ready to forget?
- Who do I need to forgive?
- What quality do I most want to develop in myself?
This is a simple exercise to help open all the meridians in your body. Use this simple technique to quickly release tension from your body, especially from around the shoulders and upper back. You can imagine that you are sweeping, just like using a broom, stress out of your body as you bounce up and down.
3. Sensing Your Qi Energy
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your feet parallel.
- Bring the backs of your fingers under your armpits.
- Quickly sweep down the sides of your body as you bend your knees slightly.
- Repeat this movement 10 to 20 times in quick succession, creating a bouncing, rhythmic motion.
Qi energy cannot be seen, but it can be felt. This exercise will help you learn to sense its presence. It requires deep, relaxed concentration, the perfect remedy for stressed-out brains. You should be as relaxed as possible before attempting this exercise, so stretch your body before you begin. At first, the feeling might be very subtle. Do your best to clear your mind and focus on that sensation. Keep practicing this and soon you will find that the sensation grows stronger.
Playing some soft meditative music in the background may be helpful.
4. Laugh It Up
- Sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair and straighten your back.
- Relax your mind. Inhale deeply; letting go of any remaining tension while exhaling.
- Raise your hands slowly to chest level, with your palms facing each other but not touching.
- Now create about 2 to 4 inches of space between your hands and concentrate fully on the space. Imagine that your shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands are floating weightless in space.
- Pull your hands apart and push them closer together again, feeling the "energy ball" grow bigger and warmer with each repetition. Keep moving for your hands for 3-5 minutes.
- Breathe in and out slowly and deeply 3 times. Rub your hands together briskly until they are warm; then gently caress your eyes, face, neck, and chest.
This exercise may seem frivolous but doing it can gain you some serious emotional release. Emotions are the primary reason we place limits on our brain. One of the most powerful emotions that is often active in our brains is fear. And it is fear that makes us tell ourselves, “I can’t try that." Or, "I shouldn't do this." Fortunately, it is possible to relieve your mind of debilitating emotions, but you must first learn to let go of them.
5. Triumphant Tree
- Sit or lie on the floor, in a comfortable position that gives your belly plenty of breathing room.
- Start laughing.
- Laugh harder.
- Keep going.
- When you feel lighter, in your mind, body and heart, exhale one long breath.
- Close your eyes, bring your palms together, make a big smile on your face and bow in gratitude.
This is a fun and challenging body balancing exercise. As with any exercise, make sure you have good posture and alignment. Through the years, your body has probably developed habits that are less than ideal. If you conscientiously strive to improve your posture, you are essentially retraining your brain to adopt a healthier habit.
When you do this standing exercise, try to keep this posture for as long as possible. After a few minutes you will feel your skeletal muscles shift into better alignment, and you will be creating more space for both your blood and energy to circulate!
To help keep your balance, focus just below your navel, inside your lower
abdomen. This is the center point of your body, and thus is your center of
- Stand with your feet together and your palms in the prayer position.
- Slowly bring one foot up, placing the sole of your foot as high as you can on your inner thigh.
- Push your knee out to the side. (If this is difficult at first, place the foot lower on the leg.)
- Hold for 10 counts and then switch sides.
Find the exercises that are most appealing to you and have fun doing them. Now, that's making some wise choices!