Renew You Challenge: Give your brain a workout

Put your mental powers to the test with five fun activities that can help keep your brain sharp. 

Sari Harrar
Older woman and young girl playing the piano.

The Renew You Challenge is the newest health and wellness experience from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. Every weekday in October, we’re sharing new ideas to help build up your body, mind and spirit.


It’s no secret that doing crossword puzzles can help keep your brain sharp as you get older. Studies as recent as a 2019 report in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry have linked crosswords to sharper brains in later life. But the popular word game isn’t the only way to maintain good mental function as you get older.

In fact, there are dozens of ways to keep your mind active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls out dancing as a way to help maintain your brain’s memory recall and planning skills. That’s because it takes focus to learn and remember dance moves and keep the rhythm. 

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends volunteering, taking up a new hobby, or signing up for a class as good ways to keep your mind active and nimble. The NIA points to research that shows that learning fun activities may help protect the brain by “establishing cognitive reserve,” so that your brain is in a better position to “compensate for age-related brain changes.”

“You don’t need an expensive digital gadget or a special brain-training program,” says Yonas E. Geda, M.D., professor and director of global neuroscience at the Barrow Neurological Institute. “Simple everyday activities such as a leisurely walk after dinner can reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment. ”

Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is a condition marked by early indications of brain problems, explains Dr. Geda. It can be an early phase of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

A healthy lady on a walk
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In their 2017 research conducted at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Geda and colleagues measured just how much activities that involve thinking skills can help maintain good brain health. He and his team followed nearly 2,000 adults, ages 70-plus, for four years. They found that those who played games, did crafts or worked on a computer regularly cut their risk of MCI by 70–78%. 

“Challenging activities may protect the brain by encouraging the growth of new brain cells and new connections in the hippocampus, a brain area important for information storage,” he says. “Mental activity is like pouring water on a flower so it can flourish.” 

His best advice? Eat a well-balanced diet, get plenty of sleep and do some type of exercise every day. Then, sprinkle in the following five brain challenges to round out your day. 

Brain Challenge #1: Solve a Puzzle

Older adults who did daily word or number puzzles scored highest on tests of memory, focus, reasoning and mental processing speed in two 2019 studies from the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter. Those older adults who played word puzzles also matched the scores of people eight years younger than they were when taking short-term memory tests. 

Bonus booster: If your current puzzle type is starting to seem easy or even boring, move up to a slightly higher level of difficulty, Dr. Geda suggests. Or switch from word puzzles to number ones, or vice versa. “You want to challenge your brain, but not stress yourself out,” he notes. “Avoid perfectionism. Aspiring for a perfect outcome discourages us from taking the first step.”  

Brain Challenge #2: Dust Off Your Board Games 

From Monopoly and Scrabble to chess and checkers, playing board games is another fun way to challenge your brain. In a 2020 University of Edinburgh study of more than 1,000 women and men in their 70s, those who played these kinds of games often experienced slower declines in memory and thinking skills, compared to those who didn’t have a regular game night. 

The study tracked participants since age 11, but researchers found that people who picked up the board game habit later in life also experienced the positive brain-health benefits. 

Bonus booster: The study above looked at games that come in a box or that you can hold in your hands. But 2017 research in the journal PLOS One suggests that video games may also have beneficial brain effects for older adults. 

Brain Challenge #3: Grab a Stopwatch 

Got a minute? Fast brainteasers like these could be mentally stimulating, Dr. Geda says. 

  • Count backward from 100 to 1. Make it more difficult by counting backward by threes, sixes, sevens or nines. Try to count as quickly as you can. 
  • Write down the names of as many movies as you can think of in 60 seconds. Change it up by listing flowers, trees, U.S. state capitals or the names of countries.
  • Draw a map from memory. Pick your own neighborhood, the downtown of a city you know well or your favorite vacation spot.
  • Say the names of the colors you see in this list, not the colors of the letters themselves, as quickly as you can: GREEN. RED. ORANGE. YELLOW. BLUE. PURPLE. BLACK. GRAY.

Bonus booster: Fit a variety of brain challenges into your day or week. In a more recent study, Dr. Geda and his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging found that doing three or four different types of mental activities (like using the computer or doing craft activities) regularly did more to lower the risk of memory and thinking problems than doing just one or two. 

“Different types of challenges put different areas of the brain to work that are involved with language, attention, memory, sense of direction and more,” he explains. 

Brain Challenge #4: Find Your Rhythm 

Physical activity is a proven way to help keep your brain sharp. Combining movement with mental stimulation may be even more beneficial in slowing cognitive decline than either alone, according to recent research. 

Consider it the excuse you need to clear some space and take up the cha-cha, the hustle or any other fun, dance-based exercise routine. The CDC recommends starting with a short 5- or 10-minute dance session until you’ve built up your endurance. 

Or try walking around in your own home while you talk on the phone, Dr. Geda suggests. (Make sure you have a safe area without any trip hazards.) The areas of the brain that control planning, organizing and focusing may get strengthened by adding in a layer of movement, he explains. 

“Every little bit you do helps,” he says. 

Bonus booster: If you already enjoy dancing regularly, find a new routine to learn. You can search the internet to find instructional dance videos in different styles — everything from ballroom to Broadway to disco. 

Try a New Brain Game

Up for more fun? Test your memory power, reaction time and problem-solving skills with Renew’s variety of brain games. To find them, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Brain Games in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here


Brain Challenge #5: Tap Into Your Inner Artist 

Knitting, embroidery, woodworking, painting — pick whatever arts-and-crafts project sounds enjoyable and get creative. People who tapped into their artistic side regularly cut their risk of MCI by 72% in the 2017 Mayo Clinic study mentioned above. 

“Arts and crafts require focus, planning, problem-solving and creativity,” Geda notes. 

Brain booster: If you’ve never been much of a hobbyist, it’s not too late to start. A 2015 study in the journal Neurology showed that adults in their 80s who took up artistic activities were less likely to develop MCI, compared to those who didn’t engage in similar activities. Ask a friend who crafts to teach you some of the basics to get started, or look up how-to videos for different projects on the internet.

Catch up with the Renew You Challenge:

Download your Renew You Challenge calendar

Day 1: Strengthen Your Core

Day 2: Eat More Real Food Today

Day 3: Do These 6 Important Health Checks

Day 4: Help Your Hips

Day 5: Reframe a Negative Thought

Day 6: Help Improve Your Posture

Day 7: Create a Wish List

Day 8: Check Your Heart Health in 60 Seconds

Day 9: Help Prevent Falls