Health

Exercise Your Brain: Puzzles and Games to Boost Cognitive Performance – Healthline

Keeping your mind sharp is important, especially now. Although the pandemic is (maybe, kinda, sorta) winding down, many of us still aren’t getting the daily stimulation we once got from populated offices, robust happy hours, and social events with friends and family.

To make sure you don’t fall into a “pandemic fog” experts recommend playing games at home to give your brain a regular workout.

According to Rebecca Marcus, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in New York who specializes in mindfulness, brain games are important for several reasons:

  • They can help to increase focus, concentration, and memory.
  • They can help us to be more present in day-to-day activities.
  • While it doesn’t appear that brain games can prevent age-related cognitive decline and dementia, growing research indicates that they may slow or delay them.

“We are more likely to feel scattered, have trouble focusing, or experience forgetfulness if we don’t do things to exercise and keep our mind sharp,” says Marcus. “Just like we wouldn’t expect to go to the gym for 3 months and then forever have muscles and strength without continuing to exercise, the same applies to exercising our mind.”

It’s important to note that the game you choose needs to constantly increase in challenge and variety, according to Marcus. “If [you’re] only playing the same thing over and over again, the mind isn’t challenged anymore and begins to run on autopilot,” she says.

Besides brain games, she says another way to challenge your brain is simply by varying your regular routines or tasks. For example, if you take your dog for a walk on the same route every day, try going in a different direction one day. (See? Easy!)

You’ll also want to challenge both sides of your brain.

The left brain is known to perform tasks related to logic, such as science and mathematics, whereas the right brain is more visual and intuitive. Games like Sudoku and puzzles are great for challenging the left side of the brain.

On the other hand, to strengthen the right side of your brain, you’ll want to “keep your emotional intelligence sharp by engaging in conversations where you evoke and attune to the emotions of others,” says Sarah Schewitz, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles.

You can also try new creative hobbies such as:

  • painting
  • photography
  • creative writing
  • playing music or learning to play an instrument

We considered various criteria when making our list. Some key features include:

  • Opinions of experts in the field. We spoke to two psychology experts for their input on what to look for when choosing a game.
  • User reviews and customer feedback. We considered user reviews and customer feedback from various websites that sell the products.

1. Scrabble

On top of bringing out the competitive spirit in every age group, this classic word game works to enrich your vocabulary and train your mind to focus on a sole task. With an entire dictionary of words to choose from, every round is different, and you’ll never tire of playing this game. It’s been around since 1948 after all.

2. Sagrada

Sagrada is a dice placement game that lands halfway between a competitive board game and a brain teaser. The goal is to carefully construct a stained glass window by placing dice according to the color and shade while following many restrictions. Users say they had so much fun playing Sagrada that they dreamed of glass dice at night.

3. Rummikub

This easy-to-learn, fast-moving game combines both luck and strategy. Players take turns placing numbered tiles in runs and groups, rummy style. As the board changes, players constantly adjust their tiles until every tile on their rack is gone. Rummikub may help sharpen your sequencing, pattern recognition, and planning skills.

4. Jigsaw puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles are great because they exercise both the left and right sides of your brain at once. Puzzles require both logic, intuition, and creativity, and it’s easy to get lost for hours working on them. Bonus: There are so many new aesthetic puzzle brands out there like Ordinary Habit, Piecework, and Whiled that highlight new artists from around the globe.

5. Rubik’s Cube

The Rubik’s Cube is known for being the world’s bestselling and most famous puzzle. With over 43 quintillion possible moves, this portable game is perfect for stimulating the brain during idle time. Rather than scrolling through social media or watching television when you’re sitting in a waiting room, try your mind at solving the cube. (But be warned: It’s harder than it looks.)

6. Azul

Azul is a tile placement game in which players compete for the highest score by claiming tiles and arranging them on their board to score points. It’s a great strategy game to play with the family, and it won the coveted Spiel des Jahres award in 2018 — an assurance of fun and quality.

7. Sudoku

Sudoku is a number puzzle where you have to fill a grid with numbers 1 through 9, with each number appearing only once in a row, column, or box. This classic game makes you think critically and helps improve concentration skills. While there are many mobile options nowadays, nothing hits harder than playing with pen and paper.

8. Our Moments Couples: Conversation Starters for Great Relationships

“It’s also important to keep your emotional intelligence sharp by engaging in conversations where you evoke and attune to the emotions of others. Take time to have a meaningful conversation with a loved one and improve your emotional intelligence by observing and asking how they feel during the conversation,” says Schewitz.

This card pack is filled with stimulating questions like “What’s something that you’ll never try again?” or “What have you lost since childhood that you’d like to regain?”

9. Crossword puzzles

Clinical trial findings show that crossword puzzles help delay the onset of memory decline in people who develop dementia. This brain activity helps you improve your verbal skills, and forces you to think deeply.

10. Chess

If “The Queen’s Gambit” wasn’t inspirational enough, playing chess results in better brain function, improved memory and cognitive abilities, strategic thinking, and increased attention spans. In this 2019 research review, scientists found that the cognitive benefits of chess could help protect older adults from dementia.

Games are an excellent vehicle to learn something new and stimulate your brain. These options are incredibly fun, pandemic friendly, accessible, and work to keep your mind sharp in the long term.


Iman Balagam is a writer based in Houston, Texas. When she’s not laughing at her own jokes or buying overpriced chia pudding, she can be found reading fiction novels, catching a cycling class, doomscrolling through TikTok, or waiting for her delayed Spirit flight to board. You can see more of her work on her website.

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