Exercising Our Brains 101: Why and How

Major media publications (Time Magazine, Newsweek, CBS, USA Today…) are starting to explain the scientific evidence behind how brain training can improve memory and concentration and help delay diseases such as Alzheimer’s. We have engaged our neuroscience and health experts to prepare answers to these 7 Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Why is it so important to exercise our brains?

Answer: Our brains are composed of different areas or “mental muscles”, and we can strengthen them through mental exercise- or they get atrophied for lack of practice. The benefits are both short-term (improved concentration and memory, sustained mental clarity under stressful situations…), and long-term (creation of a “brain reserve” that help protect us against potential problems such as Alzheimer’s).

2. What are 1 or 2 things that are guaranteed “brain drains”?

Answer: Too much anxiety can make us waste our mental efforts on things we don’t control and can derail our efforts to reach our goals. A very repetitive and routine-driven life, lacking in novelty and stimulation, does too. Having a brain is what helps us learn and survive in new environments. The challenge, then, is to embark on new tasks that are not too difficult too early, and manage stress to prevent anxiety from appearing.

3. Tell us a few easy-to-do activities that we should all be doing often?

Answer: For stress management: a 5-minute visualization, combining deep and regular breathings with seeing in our mind’s eye beautiful landscapes and/ or remembering times in our past when we have been successful at a tough task.

For short-term memory: try a series subtracting 7 from 200 (200 193 186 179…), or a series involving multiplication (2,3 4,6 6,9 8,12…) or exponential series (2 4 8 16 32 64…). The objective here is not to become a math genius, but to exercise and improve our short-term memory.

Another way is to try and remember our friends telephone numbers. In general: attempt new things every day, big or small. Take a different route to work. Talk to a different colleague. Ask an unexpected question. Approach every day as a living experiment, a learning opportunity.

4. Are crossword puzzles and sudoku really as great for exercising our brain as they are reported to be? Why? And what about activities like knitting?

Answer: “Use it or lose it” may be misleading if we think that “It” is just one thing. The brain is composed of many different areas that focus on different things. Doing a crossword puzzle only activates a small part of the brain. The 3 key principles for good brain exercises are: novelty, variety and constant challenge. Not that different from cross-training our bodies.

The first time we do a crossword, or sudoku or knitting, that is great, because it forces us to learn. But when doing it is completely routine, the marginal benefit is very limited. Nowadays neuropsychologists do not recommend paper-based activities but computer-based brain exercise software programs, since they can provide a variety of new activities all the time, always tailored with a proper increasing level of challenge.

5. Any foods that increase our brain fitness?

Answer: The main principle is that foods that are good for our body are also good for our brain. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, and tuna, also have shown some benefits. There is contradictory data on Ginkgo biloba. The best “brain food” is, literally, mental stimulation.

6. Does physical exercise also exercise our brains?

Answer: In summary, physical exercise is important because it influences the rate of creation of new neurons in our brains. Mental exercise is important because it helps determine how those new neurons are used-and how long they survive. Stress can reduce both the creation of new neurons and their lifetime, so stress management is important too.

7. Isn’t active learning, that combines physical and mental exercise, the best way to stimulate the brain?

Answer: We are talking about 2 different things here: a) Habits for long-term good brain health: we typically list the 4 pillars of nutrition, physical exercise, stress management and brain exercise. Yes, constant active learning provides with great mental stimulation; b) Short-term Training and improvement of one specific area (memory,…): you need something more direct and well-targeted training experience such as that provided by a computer-based program, that assesses where you are today and “stretches” that specific capacity.

Both aspects are very important, in the same way that both walking often and going to the gym to do targeted workouts are complementary for physical fitness.

This article should have provided you with good information to reclaim your brain! remember, Use It and Improve It!

Copyright (c) 2007 SharpBrains