9 Simple Exercises to Improve Executive Function At Home

Recent studies have been able to shed some light on executive functions, their importance, and how they can be trained. In this article, psychologist Cristina Martinez de Toda will talk about what executive functions are, how they help you, and give you some of the best exercises to improve executive function. What are you waiting for? Give your brain the training it needs!

exercises to improve executive function
Exercises to improve executive function

What are executive functions?

Executive functions are defined as the set of cognitive skills used in reasoning and in new or changing problem solving situations. Executive functions are the sequence of activities that lead us to a goal.

Executive functions are the mental operations that we carry-out to make it possible for us to reach a final goal. They allow us to select, plan, and make voluntary decisions. Executive functions make up an important part of our behavior:

  • Executive functions are related to our ability strategize and make goals.
  • The abilities used in planning and achieving goals.
  • The cognitive skills that are used to carry-out a plan.
  • Recognizing goals and the ability to modify an activity and make new plans of action.

Sholberg considers that executive functions are a series of cognitive processes that are made up of anticipation, goals, planning, choosing an action, self-control, memorization, and feedback.

Some normal, everyday activities like getting to work or class on time, or meeting friends at the movie theater require us to use these executive functions. If they don’t work properly, we won’t be able to efficiently make plans and carry them out like we had planned.

What happens when your executive functions don’t work properly?

Someone with poor executive functions may present problems in the following areas:

  • Difficulty implementing new behaviors
  • Inability to use operative strategies
  • Limited productivity and creativity, which is associated with poor cognitive flexibility
  • Difficulty anticipating the consequences of their actions, which is related to impulsiveness.

There are also a number of pathologies that are related to poor executive functions, like schizophrenia, OCD, anti-social personality disorder, autism, and ADHD.

How can you improve your executive functions?

Neuroplasticity in the brain makes it possible for you to improve your executive functions, which can help you be more efficient when carrying-out daily tasks. This neuroplasticity is what allows us to to create new neural connections in the brain bylearning new activities and behaviors, ultimately making daily tasks easier.

According to this article, an estimated 50% of the population has some type of deficiency in their executive functions, which is why training your cognitive abilities doesn’t only benefit children, teens, and adults with learning disorders, ADHD, or dyslexia, but can help anyone improve their executive functions.

10 exercises to improve executive function

Practicing these types of brain games regularly will actually change your brain structure, specifically the neural networks that you train to restore and improve executive functions (Anderson, Winocur, and Palmer, 2003).

1. Dividing tasks into smaller parts will help you improve executive functions

Whatever your goal, the first step should be to break down the task into smaller, more manageable parts. When you do this, you’ll have to plan your actions and order the tasks from most to least important.

Exercises to improve executive function: For example, if you need to send out invitations for a party, you may want to break it down into the following parts:

  • Step 1: Choose who to invite
  • Step 2: Go to the store and get cards and envelopes
  • Step 3: Make sure that you have the right addresses, stamps, etc.

Planning is a great way to exercise your executive functions, because it’ll help you use your cognitive resources and develop your cognitive flexibility.

2. Manage your time well to improve your executive functions

We’ve all felt that sense of panic when we realize that we don’t have enough time in the day to get everything done. This happens when we don’t manage our time well.

The trick to managing your time well is being able to estimate how long each activity will take and expect some problems along the way. Rather than planning just enough time to get everything done, you’ll want to take into account potential problems.

Exercises to improve executive function: Let’s take the same example from before. If you’re going to be sending out invitations to your party, you’ll have to think about how long it’ll take you to get to the stationary store and get what you need. Take into account that they may not have the cards you want or that you may have to special order them.

Thinking ahead and managing your time well are great ways to help improve your executive functions.

3. Teach yourself something new

When we teach ourselves things, we’re less impulsive, planning deficits decrease, and we improve our cognitive flexibility.

Teach yourself something by talking out loud- repeat the directions to yourself and congratulate yourself when you’ve done something well.

Exercises to improve executive function: Talking to ourselves can help us improve cognitive functions and “get to the point”.

You’ll save energy by talking to yourself, saying what comes next, thinking about it, and making it happen.

4. Playing sports: Exercises to improve cognitive function

It’s been shown that playing some kind of competitive sport not only helps our physical health but also helps improve cognition.

Personal skills and focused attention increase when we play sports, which will help you make decisions when you’re on the move and relate to others, as well as improve anticipation and cognitive flexibility.

Exercises to improve executive function: Do some kind of competitive sport! It doesn’t have to be an organized sport- you can go out and play football with your friends, or even play some chess. Figure out what you like doing and go do it!

Exercises to improve executive function
Exercises to improve executive function

5. Emotional dictionary

For this exercise, you’ll need a dictionary, a piece of paper, and a pen. Look up words that express an emotion (happy, sad, anger, age, shame, disgust…), look at the definition, write it down, and think about a time when you felt that emotion.

Try to look up all of the emotions that you can think of and do it 3 times.
This exercise helps improve your executive functions by working on self-control. It requires you to think introspectively and get to know yourself better, which will help you train your executive functions.

6. The importance of lists

Making lists of all of the things that you have to do for the week, what you have to get at the grocery store, calls you have to make, what to pack for your weekend trip, etc. is one of the best exercises to improve executive function.

Aside from having to plan your actions and manage your time for each task, it’ll also help you think about the future and allow for possible problems that arise. If you’ll need shampoo for your trip, write it on your list at the beginning of the week! It’ll save you time later and will keep you from making last minute trips to the store.

Lists can help you plan your goals, figure out what is more or less important, and do your daily activities efficiently.

7. Music is your friend

Music ways that music helps the brain, like being a great way to improve executive functions! Whether you’re dancing, singing, or playing an instrument, your executive functions are getting a work out. The more difficult the music, the more our brains and executive functions work!

Music can help you develop your ability to improvise, your working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition.

8. Be in a play to improve your executive functions

Plays require you to act, learn choreography, and work with the rest of the cast to remember cues and lines.

Actors have to learn lines, which helps them improve their attention and working memory.

9. Playing video games improves your executive functions

Playing video games can be a great way to improve and exercise executive functions. If you have the time to spare, and as long as you’re doing other things as well, video games can help you improve your response time, selective attention, and inhibition.

Also, going from reality to another “world” helps train your working memory.
Thanks for reading! Want to find out some other exercises to improve executive function? Leave us some comments below! 🙂

This article was originally written in Spanish by Cristina Martinez de Toda.

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