In Greek mythology, Oedipus saved his own life by answering the riddle of the sphinx: “What crawls on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Today, we know that brain teasers like these can save our lives—even if we answer incorrectly. Keeping our brains active can help negate some of the ill effects of inactivity and loneliness.
Clinical research suggests that exercise and social contact both have positive effects on improving mood. For some people, exercise might even be more effective than medication for moderate depression. Loneliness and lack of physical activity are associated not only with worsening mental health but also with cognitive decline. These effects have been studied primarily in older adults, but some studies have found the same effects in younger people.
In my own experience, exercise and doing fun activities with friends and family are probably my two most important wellness tools. These tools work great for your Daily Maintenance Plan—Section 1 of your WRAP. For exercise, I enjoy running, swimming, and hiking, and my daughter has recently gotten me to go kayaking with her. For fun activities, I enjoy going to concerts and musicals and trying new ethnic cuisine with my friends. Of course, everyone is different, and you probably have interests that are very different from mine. Whether it’s feeding ducks at the park, listening to opera, bowling, book clubs, or motorcycling, you probably know what makes you feel good.
However, if you’re reading this article, you probably face the same problem I do. When I don’t feel good, it’s harder to do the things that make me feel good. When you’re feeling down or distressed, it can be difficult to lace up your running shoes. It can be even harder to pick up the phone to call your friends. And an inability to do the things that keep you well can accelerate your decline. In fact, under Early Warning Signs (Section 3 of your WRAP), you might want to list “losing interest in [insert some activities that you listed in your Daily Maintenance Plan].”
But there are other times when you can’t exercise or meet up with your friends. Maybe you have a bad cold or there are two feet of snow on the ground. People who exercise a lot are at risk of emotional struggles if they are injured and can’t exercise for an extended period. So maybe you need a “Plan B” in your Daily Maintenance Plan.
When you can’t exercise your body, try exercising your brain. Numerous books and apps are available that claim to improve cognitive functioning. They have legions of supporters who swear by their effectiveness, but some experts question whether they are any more effective than more traditional mental exercises like crossword puzzles, word searches, or brain teasers. Think about including the crossword or Sudoku from the newspaper or a website in your daily routine. If puzzles aren’t your cup of tea, try reading something challenging or taking a free online course on a topic that interests you. You can study anything from art history to zoology, and you don’t even need to worry about getting your homework done on time or cramming for midterms and finals!
When you don’t feel like talking with family or friends, try writing them a letter, notecard, or postcard and mailing it to them. In today’s world, receiving a handwritten letter is a rare treat.
Any other ideas on how to keep your mind sharp? Let us know about it on our WRAP Facebook page. (And see if you can be the first person to post the answer to the riddle at the beginning of this article!)
Alan Marzilli, J.D., M.A., is a senior writer/program associate at Advocates for Human Potential (AHP). His work focuses primarily on homelessness, mental health and substance use disorder services, cannabis regulation, and employment services.