Marc Forster-Pert | CNN, April 2015

Forgotten why you went to the refrigerator? Struggling to concentrate on work and multitask at the same time? Join the club. Experts cite that eating well, reducing stress and physical activity are all ways to keep our brains sharp and functioning at top-notch speed.

But in the same way you workout out to keep your body in shape, your mind also needs exercising. According to neuroscientists, learning and practicing any challenging skill can change the structure of your brain for the better and help growth and survival of the 86 billion neurons constantly active in your brain.

The jury is still out over whether brain-training games actually work, but a study looking into interventions to reduce cognitive decline in aging states that memory training classes can lead to an improvement in performance on cognitive tasks – including perceptual discrimination, visual search, recognition, recall, and spatial perception.

So what methods can we practice to keep our mind healthy?

We’ve hand-picked six brain-challenging activities you can try at your desk that may lead to you thinking smarter.

1. The desktop game

Iota comes in a lightweight, travel-friendly box which will find room on any desktop. It seems easy to win at first, but you’ll have to be clever and seize the opportunities at the right time. Points are gained by placing cards in grids following a simple set of rules. The rules may be simple but the moves are complex which may leave you scratching your head when contemplating your next play.

It improves visual-spatial skills leaving you better able to remember and understand things visually. In addition, it will breed creativity, have you solving problems for fun and get you thinking logically. What’s more, you can’t play on your own so it’s a great opportunity to socialize with colleagues as you try to outwit them over your lunch break.

2. The brain-training app

Lumosity now has over 70 million members worldwide and its games have been played over a billion times. Designed by neuroscientists, it uses studies in neuroplasticity — the theory that the brain is malleable and constantly changing in response to new experiences — to build a personalized workout program boosting memory, attention, speed, mind flexibility and problem solving.

The science aside, the 40-plus games are fun, mildly addictive and don’t feel like a tedious brain-training chore.

3. The puzzle book

There are hundreds of brain-training books that promise to sharpen mental skills but which one works? We haven’t been able review each one but how about a book that provides 1.09 games per day for a year and was compiled in conjunction with neuroscientists?

Game creator Nancy Linde’s ‘399 games, puzzles & Trivia challenges‘ focuses on improving neurogenesis – the process of forming new brain cells – by getting your brain to think in new and novel ways, helping to maintain memory and build neural pathways between cells. The games target six cognitive functions affected by normal aging such as logical thought, language and attention.

4. The focusing task

Focus and attention is something we all need to help us stay productive. Keeping out distractions, diverting our attention away from computer or smartphone screens and finding somewhere quiet for at least ten minutes each day will improve focus. But if that doesn’t work and you’re still spreading yourself across multiple tasks at once, you can try one of these simple methods to build your power of concentration.

  • Count back from 100 in your mind. You can increase the number or count back in multiples to make the task harder.
  • Find an object, hold it in your hands with your arms outstretched and focus on it for as long as you can.
  • Take a book or newspaper and count the words on a page. Start with a paragraph and go from there, ensuring you count in your mind rather than using your finger to point at each word.
  • Sit still. Simple as it sounds, it’s not that easy. Try for as long as you can without moving a muscle.

5. The news quiz

Do you ever struggle to recall current affairs events or the names of politicians and sportspeople? Well this task will help you raise the importance in your mind of the stories you read and better commit them to memory.

Use your lunch break to read articles on a top news site, and test yourself by doing a weekly or daily news quiz to see how much you’ve remembered. Try to include at least one longer feature and read all the way to the end.

Not only will you become better informed, it will also raise your brain’s ability to store information and improve concentration.

Try a quiz from this week’s events.

6. The inspiring talk

You’ve probably heard of TED talks, the free online educational lectures sharing ideas with the world. A lot of talks only last a few minutes if you’re short on time, and the customizable search options will help you find the video most suitable to your mood.

One of the most popular talks under ‘inspiration’ is by psychologist and author Shawn Achor who is an expert on the link between happiness and success. He believes that positive thinking increases the happy hormone serotonin which in turn, helps our brain think smarter, quicker and more creatively as well as making us better communicators.

Pick a playlist or select a subject, let your curious mind flow and enhance your smart thinking credentials.