Life After Full-time Work Blog

Learn about preparing for life after full-time work through posts from Don's upcoming book.

#162 Exercises For The Brain

Fun things to do on your own or in groups


I’ve focused on the brain in the last couple of blog posts, first on why we need to exercise the brain to slow down its natural shrinkage with age, and then on mindfulness as a specific form of brain exercise. In this final post on the brain, I’ll mention other kinds of brain exercises that help to create new brain cells and pathways. I’ll skip the obvious support systems (such as diet, physical exercise and sleep), fundamental though they are, and the obvious applications of skills (such as memory games and doing puzzles). Instead, I’ll mention a few of the somewhat different mental exercises that intrigued me as I researched the subject. As always, it’s easy to do your own research on the internet if this is really important to you.

I particularly like the ones that Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin (authors of Keep Your Brain Alive) call “neurobic” exercises, rather like cross-training for the brain, in that they combine mental activities with some of our physical senses (vision, smell, touch, taste, hearing).

In no particular order, here are ten you can do on your own:

  1. Use your non-dominant hand. For example, switch hands when eating dinner. Or brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Of course, you’ll also open the tube of toothpaste and apply the toothpaste to the toothbrush in reverse directions.
  2. Shower with your eyes closed. This includes locating the taps by feel, and adjusting the water temperature. Be sure to use common sense to avoid burning yourself! Then wash and rinse off with your eyes closed. And if you shave in the shower, shave with your eyes closed. Again: careful!
  3. Learn a new sport to focus on mind/body co-ordination.
  4. Take a new route. These days the nice thing about this is that, if you get lost, a map app on a cell phone will enable you to find your way back. I did this recently, walking in London’s enormous and multiply-divided Regent’s Park. I’m proud to say that I didn’t need the map, though it took me more than half an hour to find my way back.
  5. Draw a map of your town or neighborhood from memory. Or if you’ve recently visited a new place, draw a map of it from memory.
  6. Turn familiar objects upside down and see what different aspects of them you particularly notice.
  7. Play “10 things”: pick up a familiar object, and imagine 10 non-traditional uses it can be put to (in an emergency, perhaps). Let your imagination run wild!
  8. Learn new skills: a new language, a musical instrument, a new hobby (drawing, painting, dancing, knitting, cooking). This one alone can keep you going for years! This year, for example, I’m learning to play the piano, because (a) I’ve never played any musical instrument before and have never studied music, so it’s totally new to me, and (b) I’m so very linear, needing to focus on one thing at a time and complete it before starting anything else, that I felt that co-ordinating the use of the fingers of both hands simultaneously would be the toughest challenge I could imagine. (Don’t ask …) Oh, and my next year’s challenge will be to learn French, well enough that I can (attempt to) use it when I visit France (even if I make a fool of myself).
  9. Other ways to refine or enhance hand-eye co-ordination: like painting, knitting – oh, right, those are already mentioned as possible new hobbies in the previous list. Well, it’s a long enough set of new skills that it’s worth two numbers!
  10. Eat unfamiliar foods. Experience the individual ingredients and flavors in your meal (with your eyes closed). Enhance the experience by trying to identify subtle floral or other flavors in wine. This is a skill that has always eluded me, but I do enjoy the experience!

Given that humans are social creatures, and that social interaction is enormously helpful  in retaining our cognitive abilities and maintaining mental health and happiness, here are a couple of activities that you can’t do on your own:

  1. Read aloud with a partner or friend. Alternate the roles of reader and listener. Or, in a group, have a narrator and have the others read the words of particular characters. In fact, you can go further and get the script of a play you’ve enjoyed, or for that matter a play you’ve never seen, and each of you reads the part of a particular character. While all of this will slow down the consumption of the literature, it will make it a totally different experience.
  2. Do an art project in a group. Each person draws something associated with a particular theme, perhaps a season or an emotion or a current event. Then discuss what you’ve all drawn.

You get the idea. These are all approaches to exercising your mind in new ways. And, as I mentioned in Post #160, it’s that novelty that generates new neurons and neural pathways. Remember too that you need to keep up these activities, because it takes repetition to strengthen those pathways. And as our brains shrink, it’s the newest cells and connections that we lose first. The nice thing, then, is to identify the new activities that you enjoy the most; and then the pleasure of performing them is only one of the benefits, the other being the consolidation of your brain’s expansion.



There are many unusual yet fun activities, performed either alone or with others, that help to preserve and enhance our brain function as we age.


I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.

4 Responses to “#162 Exercises For The Brain”

  1. Cindy Deere says:

    Thank you, Don. As always you made me think … plus I’m very impressed that you’re learning to play the piano! I took lessons up until I was 14 and other than diddling around and helping my kids when they were growing up, having done anything with it since then. Piano lessons is on my list!

    • Don Ezra says:

      I’m sure you’ll be much more successful at the piano than I will be! I’m grateful for my teacher’s patience. I do very much enjoy the learning experience, though.

  2. J. J. Woolverton says:

    Well, being semi-retired, I gave your list of 12 mind-challenging suggestions a try. Not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Here goes:
    1) I now have cuts all over my face from shaving left-handed. I look like an advertisement for Charmin.
    2) I showered with my eyes wide shut and hit my head on the shower nozzle and have a slight concussion.
    3) my new sport was cordless bungee jumping. Did not go well at all.
    4) took a new route, got lost, and ran out of gas in some small town out in the middle of nowhere.
    5) drew a map of my old neighborhood and found out I never really liked it there. Bad memories.
    6) turned my plant upside down. Dirt everywhere.
    7) it was hard for me to find 10 uses for jello. I could not get past 3.
    8) took up sewing. My fingers now look like pincushions. So, I took up the drums. The neighbours burned them.
    9) tried eye-hand coordination, however, could never get them in sync. However, I did find that my hand is not quicker than the eye.
    10) I thought it would be great to try unfamiliar foods. Found out I am severely allergic to ghost peppers. Who knew?
    11) tried reading out loud, however, no one wanted to listen to me reading aloud math problems.
    12) I really thought painting in a group would be the easiest task. However, my friends were not too happy when I invited them over to paint my living room.

    I have decided that leaving my brain as a non-functioning organ (if it is an organ) is best for me. But, good try on your part.

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