Ex dancer, choreologist, and fitness expert. Author of The Kand Technique, and Fellow of the Benesh Institute at the Royal Academy of Dance.
Stay Sharp With Brain Exercises
With aging, memory, attention span, and concentration weaken. Reflexes slow down, and cognitive skills may decline. The challenge of brain exercises is a fun and effective way to help your brain stay sharp and alert. While there are many types of brain exercises, from crosswords, chess, and sudoku, to maths, puzzles, and more, this article focuses on brain exercises that boost the nervous system with coordination training.
This article discusses the following exercises, including pictures and step-by-step instructions:
- Thumb and Pinky
- Ankle and Head Circling
- Cross Your Arms
- Move the Finger
- Hand Circles in Opposite Directions
- Arm Circles in Opposite Directions
- Belly Rub While Tapping the Head
- Foot and Finger Circles
- Fist and Hand
- Head and Tongue Rotations
Benefits of Brain Exercises
The benefits of brain exercises to boost the nervous system all help to keep you young and alert. With regular practice, you may begin to notice the following:
- Faster and sharper thinking
- Improved memory
- Enhanced motor skills
- Improved efficiency
- Increased courage to try new things
- Quickened reactions
- Increased self-confidence
- Good Mood
The 10 brain exercises that follow help to achieve the above benefits by increasing the number of motor patterns stored in the nervous system. Motor patterns? What are they?
What Are Motor Patterns?
A motor pattern is a specific sequence of muscle action to move any part of the body. All body movements are patterns of coordinated use of muscle groups to achieve certain tasks in their intended sequence and direction. Most of our daily movements like walking, running, sitting, riding a bicycle, driving, speaking and writing, even eating, and many other activities we perform every day comprise a vast vocabulary of movements as fixed motor patterns. We have learned these fixed motor patterns as infants and adolescents, and now, as adults, we take them for granted.
Once a motor pattern is stored in the central nervous system, it is there to stay. For example, say you are good at tossing pancakes; you don’t have to ever think about how to toss a pancake ever again. Any motor pattern is learned, improved, and mastered through training (repetition) and safely stored in the central nervous system. So how does that work? What is the nervous system in a nutshell?
The Nervous System
The nervous system is your body's control center, the main communication network that controls and maintains your body's:
- Organs like the heart, lungs, liver, bowels, etc.
The nervous system is made up of the brain (head office) connected to the spinal cord, which branches out into hundreds of nerves filled with nerve cells or neurons that carry messages/instructions around the body. Different types of neurons control different activities.
For instance, motor neurons transmit messages from the brain to the muscles to generate movement. Watch the next video by Hank Green from Crash Course for a brilliant explanation of the primary importance of the nervous system.
Now that you are convinced that brain exercises create new neural pathways to make it work faster and better, you’ll be happy to challenge yourself with the 10 brain exercises described in greater detail below.
Learning new, unusual movement sequences (motor patterns) trains the nervous system and the brain, and that’s a good thing. However, learning new movements can, in the beginning, be somewhat frustrating. At first, some brain exercises are so awkward and difficult to do that they seem almost impossible—but don't give up!
Give it some discipline and dedication (which are two positive assets to nurture in their own right). Before you start, here are some tips for success:
- Start slowly
- Learn one brain exercise at a time
- If you make a mistake, start again
- And again etc.
- Practice makes perfect
- Repeat until it gets easier
- Repeat the next day, trying a little faster
- Practice while listening to music, maybe?
Ready? Let’s Go!
1. Thumb and Pinky
- Make two fists in front of you.
- One hand puts up the thumb.
- The other hand shows its pinky, as shown in the picture.
- Now try to switch the positions of the thumb and pinky between the two hands.
Start slowly, then speed up, alternating the two positions until it becomes so easy to do that you are going to challenge a friend with it.
2. Ankle and Head Circling
Roll the right ankle clockwise and the head anti-clockwise. Impossible? No, just very unusual. Follow the numbers o help you learn the sequence.
- Circle the right foot clockwise on its own about 10 times to teach it what to do.
- Circle the head anti-clockwise again, just the head on its own.
- Now very slowly, try circling the ankle and the head together in opposite directions.
- Repeat symmetrically with the left foot circling anti-clockwise while the head circles clockwise.
- Starting position: the foot is flexed up while the head is looking up at the ceiling or the sky. This gives the foot and the head a common focal point (above).
- When they begin their circles, the foot and head are going to move in opposite directions. The foot is going to the right while the head goes left, almost like saying "goodbye" to each other, and they continue on their independent circular journey.
- The foot and head meet again at the bottom of their respective circles and now briefly say "hello" in passing to continue the second half of their circle.
- Once they meet again at the top, the foot and head again say "hello" to start their respective parting second circles and so forth.
Good luck with this one! Did you get it? How do you feel?
Sitting on the floor with feet together in front of you, circle both feet held together clockwise while circling the head anti-clockwise and vice versa.
3. Cross your Arms
This brain exercise is quite easy to do, but it emphasizes the awkwardness one can feel when deviating from a fixed motor pattern. How do you normally cross your arms? Right over left or left over right? I bet you had to cross your arms to find the answer to that question.
Fixed motor patterns are so embedded in the physical memory that we are not even conscious of them. Cross your arms in the usual way. Now try to cross them the other way. Did that take a few seconds to work out? And did it feel really awkward and uncomfortable? Of course, brain exercises are all about making yourself get out of your comfort zone to face new challenges.
4. Move That Finger
This exercise needs two people: the doer and the asker. The doer does the following:
- Cross the straight arms in front of the body.
- Turn the palms inward towards each other and
- Interlock the fingers
- Now (by bending elbows), bring the interlocked hands down towards the body and up towards your face until the interlocked fingers are visible on top. Watch the video if this is unclear.
Now the second person, the asker, comes along and points at one of the doer’s fingers without touching it and says, “Move that finger.”
In most cases, the person who has the hands interlocked (the doer) will move the finger on the wrong hand! The asker keeps asking the doer to move different fingers until some measure of success is achieved.
Then the partners can swap roles and turn the “Move That Finger” brain exercise into a competitive game, thereby unwittingly improving each other’s brain performance.
5. Hand Circles in Opposite Directions
Draw a circle in the air clockwise with one hand and another circle anti-clockwise with the other hand. Now draw with both at the same time! Does it feel like you are conducting an orchestra?
6. Arm Circles in Opposite Directions
- Stand up, shoulder-width apart, with the hands hanging loosely by your sides.
- Start swinging the arms in opposite directions as in walking.
- Increase the size of the swing higher and higher until the hands pass each other high above the head and
- continue to make full arm circles in opposite directions. One arm circling backward while the other is circling forwards.
- When mastered, reverse the sequence.
- Then speed it up.
Together with appropriate breathing, arm-circling in opposite directions feels great and is very liberating, like you are in control while throwing away all your worries.
7. Belly Rub While Tapping the Head
This exercise is well known, probably the first one you learned as a child. Rub your belly in a circular motion with one hand. Now tap the top of your head with the other hand. Then do both actions at the same time. Too easy? Swap arms in repeated successions.
8. Foot and Finger Circles
For me, this brain exercise was one of the most challenging ones requiring extreme concentration at a slow speed. Rotating the right ankle, make clockwise circles with your right foot while drawing a “6” in mid-air with your right index finger. Then try to reverse the action by making an anti-clockwise circle with your right foot while drawing a “9” with your right index finger. Start slowly; this one is really hard!
You can apply the tips from No.2, "Ankle and Head Circling," to help you along. Just replace the head with a finger (that sounds funny, but I hope you understand).
Once mastered, you can also try
- swapping foot and hand (left foot, left finger)
- For an even greater challenge, use a right foot against a left finger, circling in opposite directions.
Hang On a Minute
An even greater challenge, I said? Surprisingly, this variation is quite easy. I did it on the first go. Do we need a brain expert to explain why using an opposite finger to the foot is no problem at all? I believe I have the answer.
Whenever I asked little girls in their first ballet class to turn out their feet to achieve a "first position," they always turned out their hands as well. "No," I would correct them, "only your feet."
This means that motor signals from the brain to a hand or foot are connected (maybe using shared pathways?). That would explain the difficulty in performing the original version of the Foot and Finger brain exercise (namely, circling the same side foot against the same side finger) because you have to literally create new, additional neurological signals to achieve the task.
- Then finally, swap that combination for a left foot against a right finger. Easy peasy.
The real challenge now is to circle both feet and both fingers in opposition. For example, feet circle inward while fingers circle outward. You may want to replace the finger with a wrist and visualize a clock for each side of the body to make learning easier.
9. Fist and Hand Placement
Place the tips of the fingers of your right hand against the pinky of the clenched left hand as shown in the picture. Now try to swap the positions. Repeat the change of positions at least 10 times. Then speed up the action as accurately as you can.
10. Tongue and Eyes Brain Twister
The Tongue and Eyes Brain Twister can be practiced whenever you have to wait around for anything. Again, the challenge is to move two body parts in opposite directions.
- Circle your eyes clockwise 10 times to get used to this movement on its own.
- Circling the tongue by itself is not easy. Lick around your opened lips anti-clockwise with the tip of the tongue 10 or 15 times to practice this movement on its own before proceeding to perform
- Tongue and eyes circles in opposite directions.
Is this one driving you crazy? Maybe bookmark this page and try again tomorrow but don't give up.
Other Exercises to Try
Keep practicing the 10 brain exercises whenever you feel like a break from your brain’s habitual behavior. To further increase your motor patterns on the go, you can also try performing normal daily activities with the non-dominant hand like
- Brushing teeth
- Drinking a glass of water
- Stirring the soup
- Opening doors with keys
- Walking up a hill backward or, even more challenging, the stairs!
- And a million other things left to your imagination
I hope you will continue to enjoy practicing the 10 brain exercises to boost your nervous system and share them with friends in the flesh. If you have any more brain exercises specifically for motor skills that are not included here, please let us know about them in the comments section so they can be added to the collection.
Happy brain training!
Movement Patterns by Dianne Woodruff PhD
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.