Exercise On the Brain: a NYT OpEd

Brain Health NewsThe New York Times just pub­lished an OpEd that may be throw­ing out the baby with the bath water.

Exer­cise on the Brain extols the virtue of phys­i­cal exer­cise for brain health at the expense of oth­er impor­tant pil­lars such as good nutri­tion, stress man­age­ment and men­tal exercise.

We have sent a Let­ter to the Edi­tor to clar­i­fy the sub­ject and put their main rec­om­men­da­tion (go out and walk, or join the gym) in bet­ter context.

Let’s quick­ly review the four essen­tial pil­lars to help main­tain a healthy brain, and sug­gest some tips. Those pil­lars are:

  • Phys­i­cal Exercise
  • Men­tal Exercise
  • Good Nutri­tion
  • Stress Man­age­ment
  1. 1. Phys­i­cal Exercise
    • - Start by talk­ing to your doc­tor, espe­cial­ly if you are not cur­rent­ly phys­i­cal­ly active, have spe­cial health con­cerns, or are mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant changes to your cur­rent program.
    • - Set a goal that you can achieve. Do some­thing you enjoy for even just 15 min­utes a day. You can always add more time and activ­i­ties later.
    • - Sched­ule exer­cise into your dai­ly rou­tine. It will be become a habit faster if you do.
    • - If you can only do one thing, do some­thing car­dio­vas­cu­lar, mean­ing some­thing that gets your heart beat­ing faster. This includes walk­ing, run­ning, ski­ing, swim­ming, bik­ing, hik­ing, ten­nis, bas­ket­ball, play­ing tag, ulti­mate Fris­bee, and oth­er sim­i­lar sports/activities.
  2. 2. Men­tal Exercise
    • - Be curi­ous! Get to know your local library and com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, look for local orga­ni­za­tions or church­es that offer class­es or workshops
    • - Do a vari­ety of things, includ­ing things you aren’t good at (if you like to sing, try paint­ing too)
    • - Work puz­zles like cross­words and sudoku or play games like chess and bridge
    • - Try a com­put­er­ized brain fit­ness pro­gram for a cus­tomized workout
    • - If you can only do one thing, learn some­thing new every day
  3. Good Nutri­tion
    • - Eat a vari­ety of foods of dif­fer­ent col­ors with­out a lot of added ingre­di­ents or processes
    • - Plan your meals around your veg­eta­bles, and then add fruit, pro­tein, dairy, and/or grains
    • - Add some cold-water fish to your diet (tuna, salmon, mack­er­el, hal­ibut, sar­dines, and her­ring) which con­tain omega‑3 fat­ty acids
    • - Learn what a por­tion-size is, so you don’t overeat
    • - Try to eat more foods low on the Glycemic Index
    • - If you can only do one thing, eat more veg­eta­bles, par­tic­u­lar­ly leafy green ones
  4. Stress Man­age­ment
    • - Get reg­u­lar car­dio­vas­cu­lar exercise
    • - Try to get enough sleep each night
    • - Keep con­nect­ed with your friends and family
    • - Prac­tice med­i­ta­tion, yoga, or some oth­er calm­ing activ­i­ty as way to take a relax­ing time-out (maybe a bath)
    • - Try train­ing with a heart rate vari­abil­i­ty biofeed­back sensor 
    • - If you can only do one thing, set aside 5–10 min­utes to just breathe deeply and recharge


  1. KeithS on November 9, 2007 at 5:37

    Could we see that let­ter to the edi­tor that you guys wrote?

  2. Alvaro on November 9, 2007 at 12:29

    Hel­lo Kei­th, we can’t share it until (if) it is pub­lished. The basic point is that, as good as phys­i­cal exer­cise is, it is not the only or main ele­ment to think of, so the OpEd pro­vides very par­tial advice, at least.

    We also men­tion that over 40 mil­lion in the US already belong to a health club, and mil­lions more do walk often, so the val­ue of the advice for them is pret­ty lim­it­ed, vs. oth­er areas (stress man­age­ment, men­tal stim­u­la­tion) that can be more relevant.

    There will be more sci­en­tif­ic data pub­lished over the next weeks that puts the “debate” in a bet­ter per­spec­tive. I think the basic prob­lem is a con­fu­sion over what we are talk­ing about: train­ing of spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills vs. a gener­ic “brain health”.

  3. alimary on November 9, 2007 at 1:32

    I am so glad to see more con­nec­tion with phys­i­cal AND men­tal. So many con­cen­trate on diet and exer­cise, leav­ing out one very impor­tant aspect that sup­ports the first 2, our mind! Our mind is what sup­ports and moti­vates us to begin and fol­low through with diet and exer­cie. It con­trols our focus.

  4. John Rice on November 10, 2007 at 9:02

    Con­grats on keep­ing an eye out for info like this that needs clar­i­fi­ca­tion. While many jour­nal­ists in gen­er­al do a good job relay­ing the facts, many times impor­tant ideas and facts are con­densed or por­trayed out of con­text. It seems like this is an ongo­ing issue, espe­cial­ly with news arti­cles detail­ing research and opin­ion among scientists.

  5. Alvaro on November 10, 2007 at 11:38

    Hel­lo Ali­ma­ry and John,

    Ali­ma­ry: Thanks, I could­n’t have said it better.

    John: thanks for your great blog. Yes, that is a con­stant chal­lenge giv­en how busy jour­nal­ists are and also how over­spe­cial­ized sci­en­tists have become, experts in their nar­row fields and not help­ing read­ers inte­grate new find­ings into exist­ing ones. There is much need for more inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research AND bet­ter health Education.

  6. School Psych on November 10, 2007 at 4:40

    A great lit­tle book (enti­tled ‘Neu­ro­bics’ writ­ten by Lawrence Katz, Ph.D.) syn­the­sizes the sub­stan­tial find­ings about the brain on keep­ing it fit and flex­i­ble. Here’s a quote: “Sci­en­tif­ic research has repeat­ed­ly proved that social depri­va­tion has severe neg­a­tive effects on over­all cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. The ongo­ing MacArthur Foun­da­tion projects val­i­date keep­ing active social­ly and men­tal­ly as crit­i­cal fac­tors for men­tal health.”

    Great site, by the way.

  7. Alvaro on November 12, 2007 at 12:01

    Thank you, School Psych. That is a great book. The val­ue of life­long learn­ing and men­tal stim­u­la­tion is well beyond doubt, it is a bit of a mys­tery to me why the authors of that OpEd want­ed to focus sole­ly on the val­ue of phys­i­cal exercise.

  8. Ramesh Raghuvanshi on December 2, 2007 at 9:07

    For men­tal and phys­i­cal health ancient Hin­du saga Giv­en us a valu­able proverb== Reduce your food half, dou­ble your drink­ing water, triple phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cis­es and increase joy in your life four time. This rem­e­dy is very use­ful for a good lifestyle.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?