Keep the brain engaged, even when we aren’t 

Jan 30, 2024


As the recent Portland-metro ice storm reminded us, events, illnesses, pandemics and more can leave us cooped up with nothing to do and no place to go. And we were the lucky ones if we were inside, didn’t lose power, and no tree fell on our home.  

Even with the pandemic quarantine and its jokes (I finished Netflix, now what?) receding in our memory, it’s a good idea to look at how we keep our brain working when we are forced into idleness. 

Sanjay Gupta, M.D., a neurosurgeon, published a book in the middle of the pandemic that captures some science-based tips in Keep Sharp: Building a Better Brain at Any Age.  

“While our other organs deteriorate over time, our brain doesn’t have to,” he says. We can use his five pillars of brain health every day, whether or not we are homebound. 

These techniques underscore the evidence-based treatment approach that LifeWorks NW clinicians promote to our clients, as well as being healthy reminders for us all.  

Move: “The connection between physical fitness and brain fitness is clear, direct, and powerful,” Dr. Gupta says. If you’re stuck inside, you could break a sweat dancing to a favorite song, do that household task you’ve been putting off or try some yoga or tai chi. 

Discover: While crosswords are fun, challenging our brain to learn something new is more stimulating. That’s never been easier: the internet possibilities are literally endless with podcasts to satisfy every curiosity or videos to learn a skill or hobby. 

Relax: Brains need sleep, just like the rest of our body, ideally seven or more hours a night. Meditation is also helpful, and being confined indoors allows plenty of time for both. 

Nourish: Dr. Gupta recommends we slash sugar intake, increase healthy fats like nuts, seeds and fish and mind our portions. But there’s nothing like being homebound to trigger our comfort-eating reflex. Try water first. “We often mistake hunger for thirst,” says Dr. Gupta. “Even moderate dehydration can sap energy and interrupt brain rhythm.” Keeping hands busy helps too, like a puzzle or project. 

Connect: “Relationships can improve the brain’s ability to change and adapt and preserve its cognitive abilities.” If you’re stuck at home, phone or Facetime a friend – that’s a deeper connection than texting or commenting.

Just as life sometimes coops us up, it can also get in the way of doing these proven behaviors regularly. This is a case of “progress, not perfection.” Do what you can, in whatever combination you can manage, as often as possible.  

“Never forget that the brain is exceptionally plastic,” says Dr. Gupta. “It can rewire and reshape itself through your experiences and habits. It’s like building any other muscle.” 

To be ready for the next weather or other event that keeps us home: stock up on puzzles and games—our area has great thrift stores for those. Get that library account activated to download audio books, stockpile some healthy foods, list some people we’ve been meaning to call and build that dance music play list. 

Learn more 

Healthline: Brain Exercises: 13 Ways to Boost Memory, Focus, and Mental Skills  

Sanjay Gupta: A Neurosurgeon Says the Sharpest Minds Do These 5 Things Daily |