Your brain needs exercise to stay healthy. Here’s why forcing it to learn something new – especially something hands-on – can expand your brain power, as well as your horizons.

Not only does taking on a new challenge push the grey matter you have to work harder – we now know the process of trying something novel, and working hard to improve, can actually change the structure of the brain.

As you practice any activity or thought process that’s unfamiliar, the neurons in the brain lay down new pathways. Amazingly, new cells can also actually be prompted to grow. This is known as neuroplasticity and it happens throughout our lives, but particularly when we’re young and packing in the learning: that day your training wheels came off? It marked a boom in your brain growth, too.

The good news is neuroplasticity is also achievable for older adults – including, astonishingly, those in their nineties – who might assume they’re stuck with what they’ve got, or worry they’re on a downhill slide.

Learning a new language or a musical instrument, or doing puzzles like crosswords and sudoku, are powerful and oft-cited ways to boost your brain. But researchers have found that taking a class that might seem to deliver less of a cognitive workout – they tested groups learning quilting and digital photography, for example – can have even more impressive neurological payoffs.

Dr John Morris, director of social and health policy research at Harvard’s Institute for Aging Research, emphasises that the course you choose doesn’t have to be purely academic to have potential to help your brain’s health. It must, however, feel challenging and complex to you – and yeah, you do have to practice it. “The more time you devote to engaging your brain, the more it benefits,” he told Harvard Men’s Health Watch.

Then there are mental health benefits. Working with your hands has long been lauded as a way to quiet a too-busy mind, and for good reason.

Concentrating on a palpable task – stitching leather, or sanding a tabletop, say – is a perfect opportunity to practice the meditation-like art of mindfulness. This is when you deliberately focus on what’s right in front of you – the scent of the leather, the smoothness of the surface – and truly appreciate it.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, research indicates that over a period of time, regularly dropping into ‘mindfulness mode’ can reduce stress, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia and addictive behaviours; boost concentration, wellbeing and happiness – and even the immune system – and make us better able to cope with very difficult events such as the death of a loved one. “It can result in positive change in the structure of the brain and even have a positive effect on physical problems such as hypertension and heart disease,” the foundation found.

And if you really nail your newfound hobby, you might find yourself absorbed in the rather lovely and deeply creative, restorative state known as ‘flow’. This is when you’re so into what you’re doing your brain just shuts up and lets you get on with things. The feeling has been described as “ecstasy”, and linked with increased levels of wellbeing and happiness.

Keen to get stuck in? Check out our round-up of hands-on workshops and courses from around the country. Guaranteed to give your brain a workout – and chances are you’ll end up with something beautiful, useful or delicious to take home, too.

Nelson’s Centre for Fine Woodworking runs workshops that teach newbies their way around tools and machines, through to intensive courses in acoustic guitar making and masterclasses in chair design. So no matter how expert you – and your brain – get, there’s always room to push further.

Brain training

Learn how to make your own sweet kicks or sandals at the Shoe School. Courses range from one day putting together a pair of leather sneakers or boots, to a nine-day extravaganza in which you’ll design and craft your own custom pair of… anything you like, really. It’s in Wellington, of course.

Prefer your neurological jazzercise with a side of spice and sizzle and snacks on sticks? Auckland Seafood School, at the Viaduct, offers classes in whipping up Vietnamese street food and kaimoana-based delicacies you’re likely to come across at night markets. Think prawn tacos, coconut curry, and a complimentary cold bevvy.

Those taken with the urge to Hulk Smash might healthily direct themselves to a blacksmithing course, such as one of the many on offer at Kowhai Forge in Te Awamutu. Spend the day learning how to bend metal to your will and come away with a you-made knife or axe head, or whatever cool tool you’ve been hankering after.

Brain training

When a butchery class warns they’re hands-on you know they really mean it. The Pig Butchery and Charcuterie Weekend, via Crave Cooking School in Wellington, promises to be an immersive course in all things pork: brawn, terrine, paté and sausage, plus how to carve the animal up in the first place. Brain food, eh?

Spearfishing is, according to our First Man of Fishing, “strangely meditative” – and there’s a solid amount of learning involved, from mastering dive safety basics to understanding currents and working out what’s a shark and what’s just a big bit of seaweed. And all that before you even get started on the spear and the fishing. Spearo Camp, run by a champion of the sport in the Coromandel, could just be the best way to dive in the deep end.

Brain training

Photos: Getty