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Brain Exercise and Brain Health FAQs

Below you have a quick “email inter­view” we had yes­ter­day with a jour­nal­ist, it may help you nav­i­gate through this emerg­ing field. (if you want some brain exer­cise right now, you can check our Top 50 Brain Teasers).

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

Our brains are com­posed of dif­fer­ent areas and func­tions, 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”?

- high-lev­els of anx­i­ety and stress, that are guar­an­teed to dis­tract us from our main goals and waste our lim­it­ed men­tal ener­gies.

- a very repet­i­tive and rou­tine-dri­ven life, lack­ing in nov­el­ty and stim­u­la­tion. We have brains to be able to learn and to adapt to new envi­ron­ments

The trick there­fore, is to take on new chal­lenges that are not way too difficult/ impos­si­ble, and learn how to man­age stress to pre­vent anx­i­ety from kick­ing-in.

3. What are three easy and quick mental exercises that everyone should be doing daily?

- 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 goal is not to be a math genius, sim­ply to train and improve our short-term mem­o­ry. Anoth­er way is to try and remem­ber our friends tele­phone num­bers.

- In gen­er­al: try some­thing dif­fer­ent every day, no mat­ter how lit­tle. 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?

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?

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?

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. Maria writes in her com­ment below “I read with great inter­est this post on brain-stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties. I was sur­prised that soft­ware with a chang­ing chal­lenge lev­el was con­sid­ered the best stim­u­la­tion, since it’s a seden­tary activ­i­ty. Isn’t active learn­ing, that com­bines phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise, the best way to stim­u­late the brain? Thanks, and love your site!”

Answer: Great com­ment. We are talk­ing about 2 dif­fer­ent things here:

- Habits for long-term good brain health: we usu­al­ly men­tion the 4 pil­lars of nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise, stress man­age­ment and men­tal stim­u­la­tion. Yes, con­stant active learn­ing pro­vides great men­tal stim­u­la­tion.
— 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.

Hope that helps-let us know any oth­er ques­tion!

———-

Note: How can any­one take care of his or her brain when every week brings a new bar­rage of arti­cles and stud­ies which seem to con­tra­dict each oth­er?

Do sup­ple­ments improve mem­o­ry? Do you need both phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise –or is one of them enough? Why is man­ag­ing stress so impor­tant to atten­tion and mem­o­ry? Which brain train­ing approach, if any, is worth one’s time and mon­ey?

If you have these ques­tions, check out this new book, The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness:

“Final­ly, an insight­ful and com­plete overview of the sci­ence, prod­ucts and trends to debunk old myths and help us all main­tain our brains in top shape. A must-read”
Glo­ria Cavanaugh, for­mer Pres­i­dent & CEO of the Amer­i­can Soci­ety on Aging and found­ing Board mem­ber of the Nation­al Alliance for Care­giv­ing
“Kudos for an excel­lent resource! This Sharp­Brains Guide is full of top notch infor­ma­tion, pro­vides prac­ti­cal tips and helps sep­a­rate hype from hope in the brain health are­na.”
Eliz­a­beth Edger­ly, Ph.D., Chief Pro­gram Offi­cer, Alzheimer’s Asso­ci­a­tion
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SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness. The Book Click

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17 Responses

  1. I read with great inter­est this post on brain-stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties. I was sur­prised that soft­ware with a chang­ing chal­lege lev­el was con­sid­ered the best stim­u­la­tion, since it’s a seden­tary activ­i­ty. Isn’t active learn­ing, that com­bines phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise, the best way to stim­u­late the brain? Thanks, and love your site!

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Maria,

    Great com­ment. I will review the answers to make sure they are clear. We are talk­ing about 2 dif­fer­ent things here:
    — Habits for long-term good brain health: we usu­al­ly men­tion the 4 pil­lars of nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise, stress man­age­ment and men­tal stim­u­la­tion
    — Short-term Train­ing and improve­ment of one spe­cif­ic area (mem­o­ry,…): you need some­thing more direct and well-tar­get­ed, intense train­ing expe­ri­ence such as that pro­vid­ed by a com­put­er-based pro­gram. Hope that helps-let us know any oth­er ques­tion!

  3. ago says:

    phys­i­cal exer­cise is impor­tant because it influ­ences the rate of cre­ation of new neu­rons in our brains”

    New neu­rons? Didn’t you mean new synap­tic con­nec­tions? If not, I’m inter­est­ed about resources on neu­ronal growth 🙂

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo ago: yes, we are talk­ing about new neu­rons, not just synap­tic con­nec­tions. Have you seen the work of Fred Gage?

  5. Ken D says:

    I liked the arti­cle. My grand­fa­ther lived into his late 90’s and stayed men­tal­ly sharp by always try­ing new things and stretch­ing his mind.

  6. Alvaro says:

    Hi Ken, yes, that is the best recipe for healthy aging.

  7. Deb says:

    I always tell my chil­dren, “an active brain is a healthy brain”.

  8. Moses says:

    Hel­lo,
    I have heard from a friend of mine that play­ing a musi­cal instru­ment (piano) can help me to improve brain func­tions. It appar­ent­ly works a part of the brain that noth­ing else can work. Is there cre­dence behind this claim or should I just ignore this infor­ma­tion? Thank You.

  9. SpamBot says:

    New neu­rons? Didn’t you mean new synap­tic con­nec­tions? If not, I’m inter­est­ed about resources on neu­ronal growth”

    yes, he means new neu­rons.
    They main­ly arise in a part of the brain called the entorhi­nal cor­tex (?sp), adja­cent to the hip­pocam­pus, and then migrate out­wards.

  10. Alvaro says:

    Thanks for the com­ment, “Spam­Bot”?

  11. Love the site.
    For over 22 years I have been an advo­cate of brain/body exer­cise, so while we talk of both men­tal and phys­i­cal train­ing. I put togeth­er these con­cepts in my adult exer­cise class­es. We will do the math prob­lems while rhyth­mic move­ment is per­formed, for exam­ple oppo­site arm and leg touch­es.
    We do mem­o­ry games and visu­al­iza­tions as we do oppo­site arm and leg moves, some­times clap­ping games etc.
    I have seen amaz­ing changes in stu­dents coordination/balance and recall (and myself) for many years. I real­ly believe all exer­cise pro­grams should include these types of meth­ods to build both the new neur­al path­ways and increase the build the cap­il­lary beds as well.
    keep up the great infor­ma­tion on your site.

  12. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Clau­dia, that makes a lot of sense. Keep up the good work!

  13. Hajar says:

    thanks for your interrst­ing top­ic

  14. sherre nissley says:

    Would it be pos­si­ble to use your arti­cle
    “Brain Exer­cise and Brain Health FAQs” in our fire department’s newslet­ter?

  15. Alvaro says:

    Sherre:

    The answer: yes, of course. We’d be hon­ored to col­lab­o­rate with your fire depart­ment. Sim­ply make sure to give cred­it to SharpBrains.com and, if pos­si­ble, explain that we are a brain fit­ness por­tal, full of infor­ma­tion and teasers, in case your read­ers want to learn more.

    Thank you for ask­ing. And let me know if you are inter­est­ed in relat­ed top­ics, I could sug­gest oth­er good arti­cles.

  16. L.L.M says:

    hi! your arti­cle inter­est­ed me very much. to the point i would like you to ask about one thing as i see you are more skilled in this sphere. usu­al­ly when i take some tests or do some exer­cis­es i feel dif­fer­ent parts of my brain heat­ing and even its like strain­ing. may be it will seem strange bur it is true can you explain me this phe­nom­e­non. thanks

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