Kiwis spend millions on physical fitness. And a lot is said about the importance to your career of staying fit.

Plenty of people have the education and knowledge to succeed, but for mental and psychological reasons fail. But who thinks of exercising the grey matter between their ears to improve their performance at work?

Processes in the brain such as planning, working memory, scheduling and multi-tasking can be improved with mental fitness. The right exercises can open up neural pathways. About 90 per cent of what is known about the brain has been discovered in the past 20 years. So concepts such as mind training are relatively new.

Mental fitness is not new. Top sports people use psychologists and other professionals to develop their mental fitness.

Older people have been doing crosswords for years to keep their brains active. There are many more products available these days - ranging from Nintendo's Brain Age software to various online sites such as and that have exercises to train your brain.

The brain fitness market is booming worldwide with websites, video games, and books trying to grab people's attention. Some experts are sceptical. But many of the millions of people who use these tools aren't. Some say that like a violin player, practice makes perfect. At, for example, there are memory games, speed games and problem-solving games. The website claims its users have reported:

Clearer and quicker thinking.

Improved memory for names, numbers, directions, etc.

Increased alertness and awareness.

Elevated mood.

Better concentration at work or while driving.

But brain training isn't just for the elderly. Brain function begins to erode from about age 30.

The advantage with these websites and programs over doing a crossword is they are designed to target various different mental processes, rather than benefiting mental fitness as a byproduct of having fun.

Some jobs require more mental fitness than others. A lawyer is an obvious example where being in top mental fitness pays off. Long-haul pilots may have tedious jobs that don't require a lot of thinking for most of the time - but mental fitness is vital for the crunch decisions they must make in worst-case scenarios.

Mental fitness isn't just about getting your brain to work faster or to improve memory. It's about using a far greater proportion of your brain.

Lawyer Jennie Vickers, of Zeopard Law, jokes that she used to be a "half-wit". What she actually means is that she used only the left side of the brain.

"About 15 years ago I was very pleased to find out I was a left-brain thinker. That's the logical, structured, numeric, ordered thinking. I remember thinking, 'I'm a lawyer and I am a left-brain thinker and that is how it should be'." What she didn't realise was to be a "whole-brain" thinker was even better. "I ... was comfortable being a left-brain thinker. What I subsequently discovered was the best thinkers and performers and most creative people are those who use both left-brain and right-brain skills." Leonardo da Vinci is the perfect example. It was only some years later when Vickers spotted her career coach jotting down unusual-looking notes that she was challenged to think more about left-brain/right-brain thinking. "I was thinking she was taking secret notes to give to my boss."

But it turned out to be mind mapping, a graphical way of representing ideas and concepts that helps structure information and analyse, comprehend, recall and generate ideas.

Mind mapping orders thoughts in the way the brain would, not in a linear written way, which we're taught at school.

"I was intrigued," says Vickers. And as a result she read everything she could on the subject, becoming a committed convert to the power of mind mapping and began training her brain. She has even become a Tony Buzan-accredited trainer - Buzan being the person who discovered mind mapping in the 1970s. "If I stopped being a lawyer I would teach mind mapping [full time]," says Vickers.

"From a career perspective it is becoming more apparent that business needs those people who can use whole-brain thinking to [develop] new concepts."

Once you discover how the brain works, says Vickers, the opportunities for learning are opened up. No longer do you restrict yourself to left-brain or right-brain activities.

Training to use your whole brain involves activities that exercise the lesser-used parts of your brain. In Vickers' case her training includes taking art classes - something she never thought she'd be good at, being a left-brain thinker. Vickers listens to music and reads a lot as well as doing challenging puzzles.

Vickers says you need to do the crosswords or strategy games that you find most difficult - that's because they'll be working out parts of your brain that you don't usually exercise.

Being mentally fit helps in a work context, says Vickers, by:

Improving performance. "They are more efficient and come up with more solutions, better, faster. This is exactly what we need in a recession."

Enabling people to demonstrate to new or existing employers that they can employ whole-brain thinking and can find better solutions to problems and ways to achieve what is needed. "A good lawyer [for example] will find solutions to problems and ways to achieve what clients want in the most effective, productive, successful way. To do that well you can't do it with half a brain."

Using your brain more effectively you can begin to find the answers to what you should be doing and how you can serve your employer or yourself as a business owner.

In her work Vickers has seen benefits from the mind training. She uses mind maps for problem solving, planning, and organising. It has helped her in her business considerably through the ability to run her multi-disciplinary law practice. "I wouldn't be able to do the number of things I do if I hadn't understood how my brain works and use it so efficiently." She now has the ability to switch from one task to the other faster and give quality time to each. She does not see this as "multi-tasking", which she says is doing two things badly at the same time.

You need more than mind exercises to keep your brain healthy. You need good food, lots of water, a healthy amount of sleep and physical exercise.

Also, mental fitness isn't just helped by purpose-built exercises. Simple things like playing Bingo can help - or that's what American researchers found. Likewise other board games that require strategy.

In part it is the social interaction of these activities that can delay ageing.

Similarly, there is research showing that video games - especially fast-moving shoot-em-up games - can help train the mind and can improve vision. Dr Daphne Bavelier, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Rochester, found that action games increased the brain's ability to spread attention over a wide range of events and shorten the "attentional blink", which is the recovery time between one action and the next in a sequence.

So rather than turning out spotty nerds, the likes of Xbox, Wii, and PlayStation may be training their brains for better and bigger things.

The big question with this, however, is whether the individual drawn to bingo halls, or the gamer who wants to play shoot-em-up games that benefit the brain, are the ones who are drawn to that because of their relative mental fitness and natural skills in those areas. That is a question for more research.

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