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Can baking keep your brain fit?

Selection of Helena's bakes

Helena is a keen home baker and has been living with MS for over 10 years. Here she contemplates if baking can help with your brain health

As I find myself reading more and more about the importance of keeping your brain active and healthy, I am asking myself, can baking be a form of brain exercise? MS nurse adviser Vicki Matthews compares the brain to any other muscle in the body, in that it needs both exercise and rest.

A few months ago I wrote a blog about how to keep your mind fit and active when you have MS. Whilst writing this blog I got tonnes of good ideas from both MS professionals and people with MS. Sudoku, puzzles, knitting, playing an instrument, and learning a new language were some of the suggestions. Another was cooking: "It needs a sequence of actions. If I forget one part I sit and think rather than get frustrated,” commented Stephen. It got me thinking, is my big hobby, baking, actually a form of brain training?

My MS story

I was diagnosed with MS 10 years ago, and two of my biggest symptoms are fatigue and concentration issues. You know that thing when you walk in to a room and forgot why you are there? Well I do this time and time again. I think my record is to have gone up and down the stairs 5 times, forgetting what I was meant to be picking up each time. I have started to write everything down, my husband often laughs at my old fashioned note keeping, asking me why I won’t do it on my phone. But I find if I can’t see it in front of me, it ceases to exist.  So I write my to-do lists, I pace myself and I try to take one day at t time.

How does baking fit in to all this?

I have always enjoyed baking, but in the last 6 years or so I have started to push myself in what I do, trying new things, making rather elaborate decorations and baking things that I have never even heard of before. You can probably blame the Great British Bake Off for a lot of it, watching that show and the amazing people on it made me want to make amazing-tasting showstopper cakes as well!

People often ask me how I find the time and energy to bake, I guess the secret it that as I love doing it and I really find it helps me deal with life. If the day has been particularly stressful and hard, I like escaping reality by baking, as in order to concentrate on what I am doing, I have to let all other thoughts go. Sometimes I follow a recipe that I have found, sometimes I have to modify it, and I often sketch up a picture of what I’d like to try and achieve. One of my ‘specialities’ is a shortcrust pastry biscuit that you build up like a sort of 3D puzzle in a long sausage shape, and then when you cut it, a pattern appears (you can see a video of this below). Doing this really forces you to concentrate, as you have to make each section of the biscuit in several small steps.

How to deal with fatigue?

Sometimes baking takes it out of me, then I have to give it a rest. Either I get a chair and sit down whilst I do it, or I simply put the dough away to continue another time. If I am doing a big cake, I bake the sponge, stick it in the freezer and then do the decorating part another day. Doing it all in one go very rarely works because of the fatigue. But again, planning it out this way and having a schedule about what I will do on which day is probably very good for my ‘brain exercise’.

So is baking helping my brain get fitter? Scientifically I don’t know, but does it make me feel happier? Absolutely! So I like to think that it is beneficial for me (but maybe not for my waistline!).  I often also do coffee mornings (or cake and drink evenings!) in aid of the MS Trust, as I enjoy the social aspect of having friends around whilst we stuff our faces with cake! I am Swedish and we have a very strong coffee and cake culture in Sweden, we’ve even got a word for it ‘Fika’, which is basically when you stop what you’re doing and have a break with coffee and cake or biscuits.  Most of my UK friends like to embrace a ‘Fika’ now! If you like baking and fancy having friends around for cake whilst raising some money for the MS Trust why not sign up for Christmas bake off?

My advice for anyone with MS is to find a hobby that they like, adapt it so that it suits you and enjoy pushing that brain a bit extra. It can be very rewarding, almost like getting a ‘Paul Hollywood handshake’.