The research is in, when it comes to your body and mind it is a matter of “use it or lose it”.
Most of us know this about the body and do exercises to build and maintain strength and agility. We don’t tend to assume that our day-to-day lives will give our bodies all the exercise that they need to reach their full potential.
But many of us do assume that “just living” will be enough to develop and maintain our minds, but is this true?
There is actually pretty good evidence that monotony can damage the brain. It can deteriorate your reasoning skills and memory and can make you more prone to anxiety and depression. Activities that challenge the mind and introduce new stimuli are imperative to the development of the brain, and its long-term health.
If you knew that about another muscle group, you wouldn’t leave the health of the part of your body to chance. You shouldn’t do it with your brain either.
So, we come to brain exercises. These are activities that have been shown not only to stimulate the parts of the brain that we consider most vital, but when done consistently to have significant benefits for the brain. These include reducing the chances of depression, improving memory and reasoning skills, and delaying brain deterioration and protecting against conditions such as dementia.
Those should all be reason enough to incorporate these activities into your routine, but the fact is that most of them tend to be pretty fun as well.
Here are our top tips for exercising your brain, all of them digital nomad friendly.
1. Learn Something New
One of the best things that you can do for your brain is learn something new, or rather, always be learning something new. You should always have a new skill that you want to learn, or a new area of study that you want to get into.
The challenge of taking on new knowledge and skills has been shown to help improve cognitive function, including concentration, attention to detail, memory recall, and problem solving. It is also associated with a reduced chance of developing dementia.
It doesn’t really matter what you learn, as long as it is challenging. It is always best to choose something that you are genuinely interested in, since then you will make time for it, rather than always making it the thing that you sacrifice when time gets tight.
So, take that online programming course, complete that yoga teacher training, or become an expert in the obscure art of fairy spotting. The world is your oyster.
Some skills do offer additional cognitive benefits, and we’ll talk more about those below.
As well as learning something new, teaching something to others can provide you with similar positive mental stimulation. The skill of being able to break down information in a way that you can clearly communicate it and teach it to others provides the same benefits.
2. Learn Another Language
You could make become bilingual your learning challenge, as being able to speak more than one language comes with a variety of different benefits (in addition to being able to communicate with more people).
A 2012 study showed that bilingualism contributes to better memory, improved visual and special skills, and higher levels of creativity. It has also been linked with the ability to switch between different tasks coherently.
If you are a digital nomad, you might have a head start here. While apps and online classes are a great way to start learning a new language, when it comes to making that knowledge concrete, immersing yourself within a community that speaks that language is the fastest and most effective way to learn.
So, if you can, spend extended periods of time in places where people speak the language that you would like to learn.
But even if that isn’t possible, don’t use being somewhere else in the world as an excuse not to learn that language that you have always found compelling.
3. Learn A Musical Instrument
Learning a musical instrument can be another great choice when it comes to choosing a new skill to learn. A 2017 study shows that just listening to music can help people come up with more creative ideas than when they are in silence.
Research has also shown that musical training can change the structure of the brain in a way that improves long-term memory, and increase mental alertness and reaction times.
So, go on, travel with your guitar. Everyone is always happy when someone who knows how to play shows up. It can give you something very tangible to bond with new people in new places.
If carrying around a big instrument isn’t possible, but you have always wanted to learn to play, then think about a small instrument. Have you always wanted to learn the guitar? Travel with a ukulele or a guitarlele. The skills that you will learn will give you a big head start when it comes to learning the full-size guitar. Only have space for a harmonica? Go for it. The music theory that you will need to learn will apply to other instruments as well.
4. Learn To Dance
Learning an activity that requires a lot of physical coordination also exercises you brain as it needs to work to coordinate activity across your body. This can be even better for you brain when combined with music, as you brain also needs to work to keep you in rhythm.
So, have you always wanted to be able to kill it on the dance floor? Now might be the time to download one of those “learn to dance” apps and start breaking out moves in your accommodation. Or join a local dance group, which will give you the benefit of meeting new people as well.
Not keen on dance? Other activities that require similar physical coordination offer similar benefits. So, learn a martial art, or Tai Chi, or take up yoga.
5. Start Meditating
One of the benefits of yoga beyond physical fitness and coordination is that the focus on coordinating your movement and breathing is also a form a meditation. Whether you choose to go for yoga or another type of meditation practice, meditation is an excellent form of exercise for the brain.
Meditation has been shown to minimize the deterioration of the brain as you age, with regular meditators retaining a greater volume of brain grey matter. It can also increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, as well as emotional control. It can also decrease cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear and anxiety, which can have an antidepressant result.
Studies have also shown the meditation just helps us think better and allows us to better control both our emotions and our ego. Meditators are less likely to worry excessively about the past and the future, and generally report being happier.
You can read our guide to meditation for digital nomads here.
6. Socialize More
Studies show that having an active social life can minimize your chances of developing depression, as well as help protect you against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the future.
Both quantity and quality matters. You need the opportunity to have social interactions every day to keep those elements of the brain stimulated and working. This is why it is vital that you take the time to have a quick conversation with the guy at the proceri store, and make the time to build a friendship with your neighbours, even if language barrier and time mean that it stays on a fairly superficial level.
Read our guide on meeting new people in new places here.
Quality contact with individuals with whom you have deep and satisfying relationships is also very important. Dozens of studies have connected this with fewer health problems, greater happiness, and living longer.
So, even if you are out in the world trying to “find yourself” and be independent, make sure that you continue to foster your most important long-term relationships with family and friends. It might not be spontaneous to schedule calls, but your brain will thank you for it in the long run.
7. Brain Training Games
If you are struggling to find other ways to exercise your brain, then one of the many brain training apps that are available today can be good for you. The best games are specifically designed to increase your mental flexibility and keep you mentally sharp.
If you don’t have great internet access for that sort of thing, or you are just trying to limit your screen time, pick up a deck of playing cards instead.
A 2015 study found that even a quick game of cards can lead to greater brain volume in several regions of the brain.
So, learn to play solitaire, and invite friends over to play a game of trumps. It can br surprising how cards can cross the language barrier if that is an issue.
But wait… Do Digital Nomads Need Brain Exercises?
You might be saying to yourself at this point, but I’m a digital nomad, I don’t have a monotonous life. I see new places and meet new people every day.
There is certainly an element of truth in that, and the digital nomad lifestyle may be healthier for your brain than a more traditional and routine lifestyle. But before just assuming that, you should ask yourself a few questions.
- While you may be working in new places every few weeks, is the work that you do new, challenging, and different? While you may be surrounded by other new things, work probably takes up a significant portion of your time. So, you might still be spending hours a day on tasks that your brain considers monotonous.
- Has the time commitment involved in travel and the limitations that a nomadic lifestyle imposes stopped you from pursuing some of your favourite hobbies or otherwise take the time to learn new things?
- Has your social circle become significantly smaller now that you are no longer somewhere that everyone knows your name? Has travel, language barriers, and anti-social work hours significantly cut down the amount of time that you spend engaging with other face to face?
While the digital nomad lifestyle comes with a lot of benefits, it also comes with a lot of challenges. So, while some elements of your lifestyle might support your brain health, other elements might be preventing you from giving your brain all the stimulation it needs for optimal performance.
So, don’t take your brain for granted. Consider what you can do to exercise your brain as a digital nomad.