During my 20 years of schooling and 28 years of practicing as a veterinarian, mental challenges filled my days. I constantly looked for ways to stop thinking. Now that I have cut back to working very part-time, my days have opened up for more relaxation and enjoyable pursuits. However, I worry that, as I get older, the lack of vigorous mental activity will lead to cognitive decline. I am only in my fifties but hope to stay physically and mentally fit for another 30-40 years. While I have no desire to work full-time for a company, I do still want meaningful and enjoyable work. I also want to travel, have fun, and spend time with family and friends. There are many ways to keep mentally fit. The following are the actions I am exploring.
1. Paying Attention To Physical Health
I can usually tell if I have not been exercising recently. I have no energy and have difficulty thinking clearly. Exercise brings blood flow to our brain and stimulates brain growth factors. It also reduces our stress levels and boosts endorphins. Now that I am not working from sunrise to sunset, I have time to run, hike, and bike and can choose the time of day when the weather is most pleasant. My body can’t handle preparing for marathons anymore, so I am trying to increase my speed at shorter distances when I run. Hiking up a difficult mountain and biking through interesting neighborhoods motivates me to push myself physically because I am enjoying the trip.
My diet also requires more attention. It has become more difficult to maintain my weight as each decade passes. As I reduce my intake of carbohydrates and sugar, I also notice that I am more alert and able to think more creatively. I have had to actively plan how to get more fruits and vegetables into my diet, which helps me to feel better overall and will hopefully extend my active years.
2. Learning New Skills
Our brains are very plastic, meaning they can change over time. As we age, our brains naturally deteriorate unless we are actively building new neural connections. By stimulating our nerve cells, we build more complexity into our brains, which protects our brain from trauma and disease. One way to keep mentally fit is to continue learning new skills. A few years ago, I discovered Taiko, a Japanese style of drumming that incorporates exaggerated arm movements. As I have moved up in skill level, I have had to learn more difficult songs. Not only are the rhythms more complex, but I have to coordinate arm and leg movements and bachi (drumstick) twirls. My favorite song lasts 7 minutes and leaves me gasping for air by the end. The sense of mastery over this challenging song keeps me motivated to try to learn new ones. At first, a new song can feel exasperating, but I love knowing that over time I will play it as well as any of the younger players.
Another new skill I have been developing is travel writing. I have always loved traveling and thought writing could be a means to be able to travel more. However, I never believed I had the skill to do it. Putting my scribbling out to the world was quite scary, but it has been worth the risk. I realized I enjoy writing and, because I may write about it, I explore a destination more thoroughly and learn more along the way. This has also inspired me to master new languages. While my efforts to learn some Japanese before my trip to Tokyo and Kyoto failed pretty miserably, it exercised my brain and helped Japan seem a little less foreign. I have also continued my everlasting quest to learn Italian and can manage reasonably in an Italian city.
One benefit of growing older is that we care less about others’ thoughts about us. We have a better understanding of the big picture of life and start to reconsider what is important to us. This gives us more courage to try out new skills and keep working on them.
Even without knowing the language, traveling to new places – domestically and overseas – has been very mentally stimulating. Exploring a new neighborhood in Boston or experiencing a temple while barefoot in Kyoto means new sights, sounds, and feelings. I even enjoy all of the preparation for a trip and reading about the sites and restaurants I want to visit. For me, figuring out the public transportation system of a new city and asking locals for recommendations adds enjoyment to my stay. It is rare that I join an organized tourist trip as I am usually frustrated by them.
Living in a major city, there is also plenty to explore nearby. I have a membership for the Phoenix Art Museum, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Musical Instrument Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, and Phoenix Zoo. My husband and I also attend local music concerts and festivals. I enjoy experiencing new exhibits and bands and finding nuances to old favorites.
4. Building Social Connections
Another aspect of mental fitness I work on is building and maintaining social connections. This increases my sense of support as I try new things and reduces feelings of loneliness. When the pandemic first hit, I lamented the inability to travel and meet with friends. However, as I became comfortable with Zoom and other virtual platforms, I connected with friends more than ever. My friends from veterinary school used to meet up every 2 to 3 years. Now we see each other every 2 to 3 months through Zoom. I completed two certification courses online and met wonderful like-minded people through these courses. Even though the courses ended, we still arrange Zoom calls every month or two.
Now that things are opening up, I am traveling again to visit family and friends and invite local friends to concerts and festivals. A local bookstore and art gallery, Anticus, recently started a monthly book club. It spurs me to read books I wouldn’t have considered, and the discussion is engaging. My Taiko class has also been a wonderful way to interact with classmates from 17 to 70 years old.
5. Being Present
Making our brains work maintains our mental fitness and helps us to enjoy our life. Our brains also need time to relax and recover. One benefit of growing older is that we can see the big picture and make connections more easily. Being present in the moment and staying aware of our thoughts and emotions makes this possible. One way I have done this is by reducing my everyday stress, working fewer hours, and reducing how much I try to accomplish in a day. By focusing on fewer tasks, I can engage more intensively which deepens the neural connections in my brain.
Meditation also brings peace and focus to my life. Over the decades, I tried meditation but never continued for long. For the past few years, however, I have made it an almost daily practice. I prefer to do it out in nature but sometimes I meditate on my couch. My back can’t handle the typical meditation pose, so I sit with my feet touching the ground or floor and something supporting my back. There are many methods from which to choose. I focus for a while on my breathing and senses and then do a “gentle kindness” exercise. I find that on days in which I meditate for 10-15 minutes, I feel more centered and content.
Nature has always been a refuge for me, even growing up in the inner city of Chicago. Now I incorporate a hike in a nature preserve or a walk in a park into my life as much as I can. Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and blood pressure and boost the immune system. I am now a certified nature therapy guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy to help others experience the benefits.
In the book The Mature Mind, Gene D. Cohen points out a great way to balance our actions toward maintaining mental fitness which I try to follow. He states you should focus on activities in four categories: individual and high mobility, individual and low mobility, group and high mobility, group and low mobility. By having several practices in each category, you become more resilient with change.
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