This post is also available in Dutch.
Although stress has a bit of a bad name, the best way to develop a strong brain is to perform physical and mental challenges for the occasional dose of stress.
Taking the stairs to the top floor? Learning a very difficult skill? Working your job into your 70s or 80s? Maybe you’re already exhausted from merely thinking about these things. Nonetheless, they can be really good for your brain. After this blog, I hope to have convinced you that it’s a very good idea to not always take the easy way out and avoid mental and physical challenges.
Let’s be honest here, doing nothing can be amazing. Sometimes it’s not worth it to make an effort and it’s best to just stay on your couch. Indeed, you need periods of rest to prevent long-term stress, because long-term stress can damage your brain. However, not all stress is bad. Short-term stress, during which you briefly challenge your body and brain, is actually necessary to keep your brain healthy.
As a society, we sometimes overdo ‘taking it easy’. For example, only 40% of people reach the recommendation to perform 30 minutes of mildly intensive exercise each day. It’s a shame because physical exercise is very good for our brain. In addition to the long-term benefits for our cognitive functioning, our working memory already improves immediately after exercising. Additionally, exercising regularly decreases the chance of developing cardiovascular diseases or having a stroke. It’s amazing what exercise can do for our health and brain, but unfortunately the majority of people don’t experience this.
We’re also quite laid back when it comes to mental exercise. For example, middle-aged people often take steps to get a calmer life: they go out less or even quit their jobs entirely and try to take a lot of rest; even on holiday they just lie on the beach all day. However, recent studies show that this group of people is not the most cognitively adept at older age. In fact, people who keep performing demanding mental activities at an old age are so-called super agers and have a strong body and a fit brain. They continue to challenge themselves to learn new things outside of their comfort zones. So, maintaining your job at an old age to keep your mind sharp is actually not a bad idea. That is, if you also take periods of rest, of course.
Keeping your brain strong is sometimes easier said than done because it often comes with a little bit of stress. Physical exercise can lead to muscle aches and exhaustion, and complex thinking can be uncomfortable. But pushing through temporary discomfort and stress is not bad for you. Seek out challenges and solve the problems you encounter. Remember: as long as you don’t experience long-term stress, you’re helping your brain immensely.