Summer vacation is in full swing, but that's no reason to let the brain veg. To keep that noggin in tip-top shape, we've put together a list of new and creative ways to boost our brainpower, like golfing, mowing the lawn, and munching on pumpkin seeds. Read on for more easy ways to hit genius status pronto.
1. Aerobic Exercise
Read books, study hard—and do jumping jacks? There’s a ton of research on the link between exercise and cognitive function  . And aerobic exercise seems like an especially great way to make it to MENSA—one study showed adults’ brain-processing speed improved after half an hour of moderate exercise. Do the brain a favor and get moving!
2. Listening to Music While Exercising
Pitbull, Lady Gaga, or old-school Madonna, pumping up the jams while working out can improve cognitive functions. In one study, cardiovascular rehabilitation patients who exercised to music performed better on a test of verbal fluency than those who worked out sans tunes . Or maybe just waltz your way through a workout—other studies suggest listening to classical music can improve spatial processing and linguistic abilities . A way to work the brain and the muscles? Now that’s music to our ears.
3. Strength Training
Bulk up the brain and hit the weight room. Research suggests strength training not only builds strong muscles and bones—it can also boost cognitive functioning . That’s because lifting weights may increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which controls the growth of nerve cells.
Bust a brain-boosting move on the dance floor this weekend. Research suggests dancing involves mental challenges like coordination and planning, and may protect against cognitive decline . Duh—has anyone ever done the Macarena?
Take it from Tiger and take a swing. A few rounds of golf may do more than just work out the arms . One study found golfing causes structural changes in the parts of the brain associated with sensorimotor control. Get smart and hit the green.
A math test or spelling bee may be the last thing on anyone’s mind during savasana. But research suggests yoga can improve mood and concentration, enhance cognitive performance, and even prevent cognitive decline in older adults . Namaste, Einstein.
7. A Good Night’s Sleep
Stay up all night studying or hit the hay? Slipping between the sheets might be the better option: For most people, a solid seven hours of sleep is important to maintain cognitive skills such as learning, concentration, and memory. One study even showed people who slept in on the weekends were sharper during the week . Just don’t nod off during the meeting…
8. Power Naps
For those who didn’t quite catch enough Zzzs last night, a power nap may be just the thing to help stay focused. It’s unclear how long the nap should last—in one study, young adults who napped for 90 minutes showed significant improvements in memory. But other research suggests even naps that last a few minutes can increase alertness . On the other hand, some scientists say naps only improve memory if they involve dreaming.
9. Breaking a Routine
If the barista at the local coffee shop knows what “I’ll have the usual” means, it might be time to change that routine. Adding a twist to the day keeps the brain on its toes — try wearing a watch upside down or brushing your teeth with a non-dominant hand.
10. Getting Organized
Leftover pizza crust and a pile of old receipts are more than just unsightly—they may also impede our ability to get stuff done. Clear the desk and the mind at the same time: An organized workspace may help improve memory and cognitive skills.
Stick it to those elementary school teachers and fill every margin to the brim. Research suggests doodling during a cognitive task helps improve memory because it keeps the brain stimulated. Just don’t draw funny pictures of the boss.
12. Letting the Mind Wander
Whether it’s “listening” to a pal talk about her BF or just strolling down the block, there are lots of times when the mind goes off in strange directions. But don’t hold back that brain—it turns out there are lots of cognitive benefits to letting the mind wander, like increased creativity and problem-solving ability .
Fresh breath, fewer cavities, and avoiding embarrassing situations with poppy seeds are all great reasons to floss. Here’s another: The plaque that accumulates between teeth can actually trigger an immune response that prevents arteries from getting nutrients to the brain. Pick up some mental—er, dental—floss on the way home today.
14. Lawn Mowing
The grass is always greener, and the brain may be sharper, after we mow the lawn. One study found lawn-mowing releases a chemical that relieves stress and might even boost memory in older adults. Unfortunately, the odor of taking out the trash probably doesn’t have the same effect.
15. Writing by Hand
Sans Serif and Cambria are awfully elegant, but writing words by hand can improve cognitive skills like learning and memory. Adults studying a new language may be more likely to remember words when they write them out instead of typing them. Stay sharp by writing out a to-do list or penning a heartfelt confession of love.
16. Sharpening the Senses
How exactly does that cold water feel traveling down the back of your throat? It’s important to challenge the brain in shape by keeping all the senses sharp. Try involving new senses in routine activities, like eating with the eyes closed and placing more emphasis on taste and smell (probably not the best exercise to try with hot soup).
Let’s get it on—our brainpower, that is. Research suggests sex can actually improve cognitive skills. A tumble between the sheets raises levels of serotonin, which boosts creativity and logical decision-making, and the hormone oxytocin, related to problem-solving ability (skills that might help with figuring out where those undergarments ended up last night…) .
18. Positive Relationships
I get by—and smart!—with a little help from my friends. A study of elderly Americans suggests positive relationships can help protect against memory loss . Spend some time with friends and fam today to avoid forgetting their names later in life.
19. Pleasant Conversation
Oh, how do you do? A quick chat may do more than just pass the time—socializing can also improve cognitive functioning . Even simple conversations may improve skills like memory and the brain’s ability to block out distractions. Take a few minutes to talk it out before the next big test or meeting.
Gosh, isn’t the brain funny?! A hearty laugh may be the key to solving a tough problem, since research suggests laughing encourages people to think more creatively  . Panicking about what to say in a big presentation? Just picture everyone in their underwear.
21. Thinking About Ancestors
Brainpower’s a family affair. In one study, people who thought about their ancestors before a series of cognitive tests performed better than people who focused on something else. Researchers surmise thinking about family history increases people’s sense of control. These test results? I got ’em from my mama!
Who can think clearly with a mind full of worries? If the ability to sit still and silent for more than 10 seconds isn’t impressive enough, get this: Meditation helps improve memory, decision making, and attention span  . Plus the more you practice meditation, the better you get at making decisions. Start off with a few minutes of meditative belly breathing to improve concentration. Om-my.
23. Video Games
Guys who hang out in their basements playing Xbox games aren’t just supercool—they may also be smarter than the rest of us. Some researchers suggest playing video games improves a number of cognitive skills, from vision to multitasking to spatial cognition . Tackle a game of Tetris for some mental exercise.
24. Watching TV
Turns out the tube may not be so terrible. One study found people who watched a half-hour TV show performed better on intelligence tests than people who listened to classical music, worked on crossword puzzles, or read books. Researchers suggest a small amount of TV might help people relax more than other activities. But make sure to keep viewing time to a minimum—a permanent butt-print on the couch is never a good sign.
25. Lying Down
Perfect posture’s important—but there’s no need to stand up nice and straight. Instead, make like a monkey and hang upside down: It’s possible that memory improves when the head hangs lower than the rest of the body. And one study found people solved anagrams faster when they were lying down than when they were standing . Researchers think certain body postures might make us more insightful. Hwo eknw?
Food and Drink
26. Staying Hydrated
Water, water everywhere and... the mind gets sharper. Hydration is essential to keep the brain working properly, and research suggests being thirsty can distract us from the cognitive tasks we're trying to tackle. One study showed people who drank fruit and vegetable juice (yes, V8 in a Bloody Mary counts) were significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who didn’t . For those looking to cut calories, eight glasses of water per day may work, too.
Nope, it’s not the name of a frat—these fatty acids provide a ton of health benefits, like improving brain function . Greatist superfood salmon’s a top source of omega-3s—or forgo the eau de fish and try walnuts and flaxseed oil instead.
People of the world, spice up your brain! Research suggests certain spices can help preserve memory . A spoonful of cinnamon in a cup o’ Joe can ward off Alzheimer’s disease, and a sprinkling of sage on pasta may prevent another WTF-is-that-guy’s-name situation. Cumin and cilantro are especially powerful memory-boosters—so chow down and make those trips to Mumbai and Cancun unforgettable.
29. Leafy Green Vegetables
Who knew Popeye was also a genius? Spinach and other leafy green vegetables are filled with vitamins and minerals that help fight dementia. Plus, the antioxidants in these lean greens offer powerful brain protection from conditions like strokes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease .
30. Nuts and Seeds
Take a tip from squirrels and store up some brainpower: Nuts and seeds pack nutrients that seriously boost cognitive performance. Zinc in pumpkin seeds may improve memory; the vitamin E in nuts can enhance cognitive skills  .
Flintstone gummies or the kind that comes straight from fruits and veggies, vitamins may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Folic acid—found in bread, pasta, and some fortified cereals—and vitamin B12—found in animal products like fish, eggs, and milk—are especially powerful brain protectors, especially in the elderly  .
32. Complex Carbs
Energizer batteries aren’t the only thing that keeps that bunny going. Complex carbohydrates boost alertness by offering energy that lasts all day. And they’re a better option than sugary energy drinks, which usually end up making people feel drowsier. Go for whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal instead of nodding off before lunchtime.
Hey, guess what?! Coffee boosts brainpower! And energy! ’Cause it’s great! And I just had some! But seriously, studies suggest the caffeine in an eight-ounce cup of coffee can improve attention and short-term memory . Make a stop at Starbucks for a triple venti brainboost.
How do you like them brain-boosters? Research suggests quercetin, a chemical in apples, offers powerful neuroprotection, meaning it arms brain cells against damage from free radicals that can cause cognitive decline . Most of the quercetin’s in the apple skin, so keep the peel for extra brainpower. And, for those who aren’t fans of red, delicious fruit, quercetin also comes in citrus fruits, onions, parsley, sage, tea, and red wine.
We know how unappealing a double fudge brownie sounds right now, but here’s a convincing reason to eat one: A recent study found the flavonols in dark chocolate (also found in red wine, green tea, and blueberries) offer a short-term boost in cognitive skills . And other researchers recommend dipping into a chocolate fountain of youth, since the polyphenols in cocoa may prevent some cognitive impairments associated with aging .
36. Grape Juice
Those cute kids in Welch’s commercials got a head start in protecting their brains from cognitive decline. The polyphenols in grape leaves that produce wine and grape juice help brain cells communicate, so they may improve memory and learning skills .
37. Chewing Gum
Not to burst your bubble, but a stick of Bazooka may be the key to making it through a busy day. Studies have found chewing gum improves mood and alertness—plus it’s the way to go after indulging in some Greatist superfoods   .
38. Chicken and Eggs
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, it doesn’t matter—both foods are great sources of choline, which can help improve cognitive performance, especially memory . Other good sources of choline include legumes, liver, fish, and milk.
39. Fatty Foods
Don’t put the brain in skinny jeans—research suggests fatty foods improve long-term memory. A hormone released during the digestion of some fats strengthens the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory formation. (But gorging on a carton of Heath Bar Crunch will probably just create some bad memories.)
Give me some sugar. A little bit of glucose (25 grams) can boost alertness and improve memory . But don’t down a whole bag of M&M’s—excess sugar consumption can have some adverse health effects.
Bessie’s got brainpower. A recent study suggests milk is good for more than just strong bones. According to one study, people who drink a glass of milk daily perform better on tests of memory and other cognitive functions.
A Sudoku puzzle might be challenging, but after the 100th puzzle, the brain craves something new. Trying new activities stimulates the release of dopamine, which increases motivation and the growth of new neurons. So take an unfamiliar route home or read a book about a new topic, and feel the brain grow!
43. Navigating Cities
How did the man inside the GPS get so smart? Probably from spending time navigating cities. In one study, London taxi drivers showed structural changes in the part of the brain associated with spatial memory . Copy Columbus and practice creating a mental map of the neighborhood.
44. Playing an Instrument
Play that funky music, smart guy. The parts of the brain responsible for motor control, hearing, and visuospatial skills may be more developed in musicians than in non-musicians . Practice scales on a keyboard, chords on a guitar, or do what you want and just bang on the drum all day.
45. Speaking Out Loud
Better recite this tip to whomever’s sitting next to you. There’s evidence that we remember ideas better when we speak them out loud . No guarantees it won’t look strange when you talk to yourself on the street.
46. Learning a Second Language
Cerebre, cerveau, or just plain brain. Being bilingual may protect the body against Alzheimer’s—even when people learn a new language as adults. Studies show Alzheimer’s symptoms develop more slowly in bilingual speakers than in those who speak just one language . Start learning, pronto.
47. Positive Thinking
It’s possible to get smarter, savvier, and more creative—after reading this list! Research suggests people learn more when they believe intelligence isn’t fixed . The bottom line: Believe in the brain!
This article originally published February 2012. Updated July 2013.