By Lorie Swadan, Huntsman World Senior Games

I used to have a wonderful memory. I memorized songs, math formulas and historical facts easily. It was even fun. Now that I am over 60, my ability to memorize is definitely not what it used to be. In my Zumba dance class, I repeat the same routine over and over, but when it comes up on the playlist, I still can’t quite remember which step comes next. The same thing happens with poems or computer passwords. Things just don’t stick like they used to. 

I began to feel frustrated and my confidence wavered. It even crossed my mind to just give up the activities that were becoming more difficult. But, I decided -- “No, definitely not! Dance brings me joy, and I don’t care if I go right when everyone else is going left. I’m not quitting!” Instead, I decided to challenge myself. To purposefully take on activities that would stretch my cognitive abilities. 

First, I am still dancing! Research has a lot to support dancing as good for the brain! Tamee Valenzuela, one of my Zumba instructors, uses a lot of criss-cross arm and leg movements in her routines. She says, “I do it on purpose to challenge my students. I want them to really have to think as they move - right over left, now left over right, left foot out and cross over, now the other direction.” It’s hard. I can feel my brain working to follow the sometimes tricky patterns, and I just laugh if I mess up, then keep moving.

To challenge myself even more, I began to add variety to my routines by looking for new dance classes with different instructors. Variety stimulates the brain, according to research. New classes, even if they were similar to Zumba, meant I couldn’t predict the steps as easily. Every instructor has her own style. Some even use the same song with different choreography. That is really tough! My brain really has to focus to remember which routine we’re doing and what comes next. Sometimes I will even try to do a routine that is different than the one everyone else is doing just to see if I can do it. 

I’ve also added new activity classes that don’t involve dance, like kickboxing, yoga and healthy posture. Some skills transfer from dance - how to mirror the movements of an instructor, how to maintain balance, and how to break down complex movements. But each activity has its own rhythms and patterns. My latest adventure is karate. I found some Youtube classes that are just right for a beginner like me. It’s a great workout, but I struggle with the change of direction and balance points. Having the same arm and leg moving forward seems awkward, since in dance it’s usually the opposite leg and arm moving together. Also, there’s no music to give clues as to what is coming up. Karate is definitely a challenge, and I plan to continue with it. Maybe I’ll even try an in-person class and earn a few belts!

One more brain challenge I’ve given myself is memorization. According to Marwan Sabbagh, MD, director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, “Older adults who work their brains through memorization are stimulating neural plasticity, which alters the brain’s neural pathways in response to new experiences.” I started with forcing myself to memorize my account passwords that I use on a regular basis instead of saving them on my computer. (I also keep them somewhere safe - just in case!) Then I added song lyrics - not just singing them, but saying them; without the music cues it’s a little harder.  Now I work on whole passages of scripture.  At first this was very difficult. I felt like I was starting over every day. I would get parts of one verse intertwined with others, and I couldn’t remember what the first word of the passage was - ugh, so frustrating. But, just like Zumba, perfection isn’t why I am doing this. My goal is two-fold: first, to meditate on the teachings of my faith and second, to challenge my brain. Both are good for me, even if I never reach perfection

Much to my pleasure and surprise I find that when I continue to practice and review - even if it takes months -  I am successful! I can do whole Zumba routines by myself, I can remember my account passwords (usually), and I am able to recite whole sections of verses that remind me of the kind of person that I want to be. Now, what’s next?

If you want to try something new, here are a few ideas: