Intelligence is not set in stone – our brains continuously develop and reshape themselves in response to stimuli. Just as we can make our bodies stronger through exercise, we can also make our minds sharper through habits and lifestyle choices that enhance cognitive function. Adopting good routines and behaviors activates our neuroplasticity, allowing us to boost focus, memory, learning, and overall intelligence.
Understanding how lifestyle factors affect the brain allows us to optimize our routines for sharper thinking and continuous lifelong learning. Even minor tweaks to daily habits can compound over months and years to keep our minds agile as we age. With a growth mindset approach, anyone at any age can become more innovative by making their days work for them through these seven essential habits.
1. Exercise Regularly to Increase Blood Flow to the Brain
Exercising doesn’t just make your body fitter – it can also make you smarter by optimizing your brain performance. Research shows that regular aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming increases the brain’s gray matter volume and blood flow, especially to the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus – regions involved in concentration, memory, learning, and complex thinking.
For example, a study of adults aged 60 to 80 found that walking for 30 to 45 minutes 3 days per week for a year increased the size of the hippocampus – leading to improvements in memory tasks. The brain-enhancing effects of aerobic exercise accumulate over time – so aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week to boost your intelligence.
2. Read and Do Brain-Training Exercises Daily to Strengthen Your Mind
Just like strengthening a muscle through exercise, you can train your brain through reading and mental stimulation. Reading fiction and non-fiction books, newspapers, magazines, and articles expands your vocabulary, knowledge, perspective, focus, and critical thinking abilities.
For instance, a study by Emory University found that reading a novel increased connectivity in the brain and improved brain performance for several days after reading. Devoting at least 30 minutes per day to reading will compound over time to noticeably sharpen your mind.
You can also do crossword puzzles, sudokus, logic problems, memory games, and other structured brain exercises that target abilities like planning, reasoning, and attention. For example, regularly playing strategy games like chess can help improve IQ, visual memory, and problem-solving skills.
3. Prioritize High-Quality Sleep to Allow Your Brain to Recharge
Sleep is crucial for cognitive function, learning, and memory consolidation. Not getting 7-9 hours of sound sleep impairs focus, decision-making abilities, and retention of information. Studies have also linked chronic sleep deprivation to a higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
Aim to stick to a consistent sleep schedule and establish relaxing pre-bedtime routines – like reading, light stretches, and chamomile tea – to optimize sleep quality. Limit digital screen time before bed, eliminate caffeine late in the day, and reduce sleep disruptors like light and noise in your bedroom. Investing in quality sleep allows your brain to reorganize neural connections and solidify memories from the day – boosting your intelligence over time.
4. Engage in Meaningful and Thought-Provoking Conversations
Human beings are social creatures – our interactions with others stimulate our minds. Substantive and intellectually engaging conversations enhance intelligence by improving concentration, perspective-taking, verbal fluency, and complex thinking.
Discussing thought-provoking topics with friends and peers or attending meetups on literature, science, philosophy, or current events can exercise your brain by exposing you to new concepts and diverse viewpoints. For example, enrolling in a debating club can hone logical reasoning and mental agility. Seek meaningful social connections that inspire intellectual curiosity to keep your mind sharp.
5. Limit Multitasking and Give Your Full Focus to One Task at a Time
While multitasking may seem efficient, cognitive science research shows it damages our attention spans, comprehension, and ability to retain information. When we try to juggle different tasks, our brains constantly switch contexts – depleting mental energy and leading to overloaded shallow thinking.
Develop your intelligence by reducing distractions and focusing on one task at a time. For instance, close extra browser tabs, put your phone away, and silence notifications to limit disruptions while working or studying. Training your brain to pay close attention and go deep into a single task strengthens your intellect by improving memory, understanding, and concentration.
6. Follow a Nutrient-Dense Diet to Nourish Your Brain
The food you regularly eat provides nutrients that directly impact the structure and functioning of your brain. A diet high in antioxidants, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals benefits cognitive abilities – while processed foods and excess sugar can damage brain cells.
Eat more brain-boosting foods like fatty fish, berries, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, avocados, whole grains, dark chocolate, and coffee. For example, blueberries contain flavonoids that enhance neuron connections in learning and memory. A Mediterranean-style diet full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, nuts, fish, and olive oil has been shown to improve cognitive function and delay cognitive decline.
7. Learn a New Skill to Strengthen Neural Connections
Learning something new promotes cognitive reserve and neural plasticity – enhancing your ability to think, reason, remember, and problem-solve. As you master a new skill, neural pathways related to that skill area are strengthened through repetition and practice over time.
Take a class, read textbooks, watch tutorial videos, seek expert guidance, and fully immerse yourself in fostering deep-focused learning. For example, learning to code trains logical thinking, picking up a musical instrument strengthens auditory processing, and learning a foreign language boosts memory retention. Step outside your comfort zone and continue learning new skills throughout life to keep your brain agile.
John, a 35-year-old accountant, sought ways to expand his mind. His job involved a lot of routine tasks that didn’t provide much intellectual stimulation. Based on the science-backed recommendations, he implemented habits and lifestyle changes to improve his cognitive abilities.
John started waking up earlier to fit in 30 minutes of jogging in the mornings before work – he noticed this regular cardio exercise helped him concentrate better throughout the day. He began limiting distractions during work hours – ignoring his phone, email notifications, and coworkers chatting near his desk. This allowed him to focus on each task, bolstering his productivity and mental stamina.
After work, John blocked off 30-45 minutes to read fiction and non-fiction books related to psychology, philosophy, and world history. Reading stretched his imagination and vocabulary while exposing him to new concepts from various disciplines. John also did crossword puzzles and sudoku during his commute to exercise his memory.
In the evenings, John adopted a consistent sleep routine to wind down – turning off screens, journaling, drinking herbal tea, and doing light yoga stretches before bed. Getting 7-8 hours of deep sleep each night noticeably improved his mood, energy levels, and ability to retain information.
On weekends, John started taking Spanish classes at a local community college. Learning new vocabulary and grammar rules boosted his mental agility. He also began meeting with friends to discuss science, culture, and current issues – exercising empathy, debate skills, and world knowledge through meaningful conversations.
Within a few months, John noticed he could process complex information, think more creatively, and articulate his thoughts better. His expanded mental horizons provided a great sense of fulfillment. By maintaining these habits, John continues to see improvements in his intelligence, achieving his goals of lifelong learning and an optimally functioning mind.
Becoming smarter is not about innate natural genius – it is the result of habits, behaviors, and lifestyle factors that optimize our cognitive function over time. While genetics plays a partial role, our daily routines and life choices fundamentally shape the neuroplasticity and intelligence of our brains.
Research from fields like neuroscience and cognitive psychology shows our brain’s incredible capacity to grow and rewire itself in response to new stimuli throughout our lifetime. For instance, London taxi drivers were found to have more significant hippocampus regions associated with spatial memory from navigating the city’s complex layouts. Musicians’ brains devote more space to sensory, motor, and auditory processing compared to non-musicians. Our neurons and neural networks physically change as we apply our minds.
It doesn’t matter if you are 15 or 50 – you can become more innovative every day by adopting an intellectually stimulating lifestyle. Do not limit your learning and growth by assuming intelligence is fixed. Your brain can adapt and evolve when you provide nourishment and habit stack. Invest time upfront into your mind today, and you will reap the cognitive rewards for the rest of your life.