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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

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10 Responses

  1. KeithS says:

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

  2. Alvaro says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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. 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.

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