Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

Brain Health: Physical or Mental Exercise?

Our fel­low blog­ger Jere­my over at Psy­Blog has writ­ten a thought­ful post com­par­ing the val­ue of a num­ber of cog­ni­tive enhanc­ing tools. His over­all ver­dict?

The evi­dence for exer­cise boost­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion is head-and-shoul­ders above that for brain train­ing, drugs, nutri­tion­al sup­ple­ments and med­i­ta­tion. Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, on the cur­rent evi­dence, exer­cise is the best way to enhance your cog­ni­tive func­tion. And as for its side-effects: yes there is the chance of an injury but exer­cise can also reduce weight, low­er the chance of demen­tia, improve mood and lead to a longer life-span. Damn those side-effects!”

Arti­cle: Which Cog­ni­tive Enhancers Real­ly Work: Brain Train­ing, Drugs, Vit­a­mins, Med­i­ta­tion or Exer­cise?

Jere­my, I start­ed writ­ing this as a com­ment to your post in your blog, but then it got too long. Let me write my reac­tion to your post here.

While I appre­ci­ate your analy­sis and share most of your points, I think the “rank­ing” effort (this type of inter­ven­tion is bet­ter than that one) is ulti­mate­ly mis­lead­ing.  It is Rubik's Cube brain exercisebased on a faulty search for a gen­er­al solution/ mag­ic pill for every­one and every­thing.

If only things were so sim­ple. Per­haps one day there will be research to sup­port that view, but cer­tain­ly not today. A num­ber of inter­ven­tions have shown their val­ue. In dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions, and con­texts. For “exer­cise is the best way to enhance your cog­ni­tive func­tion” to be true, one needs to have a pret­ty spe­cif­ic under­stand­ing of “best”, “your” and “cog­ni­tive func­tion”.

First of all, the main moti­va­tor for many peo­ple inter­est­ed in cog­ni­tive enhance­ment inter­ven­tions is to reduce the prob­a­bil­i­ty of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms. For that, lead­ing a men­tal­ly stim­u­lat­ing life, or true Life­long Learn­ing, through Edu­ca­tion, Occu­pa­tion and Leisure activ­i­ties has been shown (ok, per­haps strong­ly cor­re­lat­ed) to be the strongest vari­able in a vari­ety of stud­ies, via the so-called Cog­ni­tive Reserve. In oth­er words, research-based advice would prob­a­bly be, for a teenag­er: Don’t Drop Out of School. For a mid­dle age per­son: Make Sure you Have a Stim­u­lat­ing Job. For a retired per­son: Find and Try to Mas­ter  New Hob­by Every Few Years.

Sec­ond, the case for phys­i­cal exer­cise is most­ly based on mov­ing peo­ple from being Seden­tary to Doing a Bit (2–3 times/ a week, 20 min­utes “sweat­ing”). Now, there are mil­lions of peo­ple already doing that. Is there noth­ing else they can do to improve their cog­ni­tive fit­ness?

You may also have seen this Inter­view with Prof. Daniel Gopher on cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tions for high-per­form­ing indi­vid­u­als. Do mil­i­tary pilots and bas­ket­ball ath­letes real­ly need to hear “Please do aer­o­bic activ­i­ties at least twice a week…”.

What about traders, bankers or con­sul­tants who already fre­quent the gym often, but need help with stress management/ emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion in order to remain “cool” when they need to? Would you tell them “Please stop trading/ that Board meet­ing when things get dif­fi­cult, leave your desk/ room for 30–40 min­utes to take a quick run, and every­thing will be fine when you come back”. Or would they bet­ter learn the cog­ni­tive skills need­ed to man­age stress real-time via biofeed­back or med­i­ta­tion, for exam­ple.

Third, as you point out, there are stud­ies on spe­cif­ic groups of peo­ple (add/ adhd, dyslex­ia, stroke/ TBI) where well-direct­ed cog­ni­tive exer­cise has shown an effect in well-designed tri­als, where­as phys­i­cal exer­cise, to my knowl­edge, hasn’t to the same degree. We are talk­ing about over 25 mil­lion indi­vid­u­als in the US in those 3 cat­e­gories alone. What do you tell them?

Fourth, the ACTIVE tri­al. Yes, that study is not per­fect. But the results of the 3 dif­fer­ent types of cog­ni­tive exer­cise (one com­put­er­ized, two not) are pret­ty spec­tac­u­lar, in my view. Can you show me one sim­i­lar­ly con­trolled clin­i­cal tri­al where 10 hours of phys­i­cal exer­cise today pro­duces cog­ni­tive gains not only now but also 5 years from now?

Fifth, while phys­i­cal exer­cise has shown clear val­ue in improv­ing some cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, such as some exec­u­tive func­tions, it hasn’t show com­pa­ra­ble val­ue in oth­ers, such as infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing or mem­o­ry. Which is one cru­cial rea­son why, in my view, look­ing for cure-alls will prob­a­bly prove elu­sive.

In sum­ma­ry, you have writ­ten a very wor­thy arti­cle, with good analy­sis but draw­ing, in my opin­ion, the wrong con­clu­sion and impli­ca­tions. I have to dis­agree with the approach, arti­fi­cial in my view, to “rank” dif­fer­ent inter­ven­tions as if they were mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. And as if every­one had the same needs and goals.

There is no research today to back or imply a claim ask­ing peo­ple to just do X (phys­i­cal exer­cise) and for­get for the time being Y (men­tal exer­cise). Or the oth­er way. Both play their role.

In our work we try to inte­grate all these con­cepts by say­ing that the 4 main “pil­lars” for cog­ni­tive health are: good nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise, stress man­age­ment and men­tal exer­cise. In the absence of per­fect research, we encour­age con­sumers and the pro­fes­sion­als help­ing them to iden­ti­fy, by them­selves, the area to work on next. Based on avail­able research and tools, their spe­cif­ic con­text, needs and goals.

This con­ver­sa­tion exem­pli­fies why we believe that bet­ter and more wide­ly avail­able cog­ni­tive assess­ments are need­ed, and fast, to help set up valid base­lines and help users of those “cog­ni­tive enhancers” mea­sure their own progress in inde­pen­dent, reli­able ways.

Thank you for open­ing a good conversation…and help­ing me exer­cise my brain by com­pos­ing this answer.

For more infor­ma­tion:

- It is Not Only Cars That Deserve Good Main­te­nance: Brain Care 101

- Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series: over 15 con­ver­sa­tions with lead­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tists and psy­chol­o­gists on cog­ni­tive fit­ness and the brain

Update: the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues at Look­ing for the Best Brain Fit­ness Method? Think Bal­ance.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

6 Responses

  1. Mike Logan says:

    Darn, I was going to work out twice today.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Mike: please do 🙂

    Just make sure to intro­duce dif­fer­ent rou­tines in each work­out, and per­haps do some men­tal math at the same time 🙂

  3. Mike Logan says:

    What, no star­ing at real­i­ty TV? Men­tal Math? On a more seri­ous note, thanks for the webi­nar yes­ter­day. I have sev­er­al pages of notes to review, and will exer­cise some men­tal mus­cles whilst doing that.

  4. Thanks for the link back, Alvaro : ) It’s inter­est­ing, if a lit­tle con­cern­ing, that brain-fit­ness seems to be des­tined for some of the same mis­tak­en con­clu­sions found in the phys­i­cal-fit­ness realm (espe­cial­ly the search for the one true best sim­ple method) But maybe that’s the nat­ur­al result of using the phys­i­cal fit­ness anal­o­gy?

  5. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Mike: even bet­ter exer­cise-what do you remem­ber with­out con­sult­ing the notes?

    Tori: I don’t find it that con­cern­ing, it is the nature of every emerg­ing field, and the sim­plis­tic ten­den­cy to look for mag­ic pills.

    I think demand will grad­u­al­ly grow more sophis­ti­cat­ed, and we are doing our best to con­tribute to that end.

    The phys­i­cal fit­ness anal­o­gy is the best we have found so far to explain what is hap­pen­ing, but feel free to offer oth­ers!

  6. Gavin says:

    Study­ing peo­ple can lead to very broad assump­tions, just as study­ing indi­vid­u­als is nar­row.
    Regard­less of a high cog­ni­tive under­stand­ing, i believe that where peo­ple are liv­ing their lives to their val­ues and enjoy­ing it, they will be freed from over the top stress and left with that much more ener­gy and enjoy­ment of what­ev­er they do, which leads in itself to advanc­ing brain health.

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All Slidedecks & Recordings Available — click image below

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.