Evidence based medical wellness for active people from a doc who walks the walk

Can you really exercise your brain? Brain training that works


There has been a lot of hype around “exercising” your brain.  For a while we were encouraging patients to do Sudoku, crossword puzzles and board games in hopes of delaying Alzheimer’s Dementia.  Then came the sad news that doing a lot of Sodoku just made you better at Sodoku, and this didn’t translate to improved brain fitness and improved thinking (“cognition”).  Well good, because I hate Sodoku anyway!

Every time I forget a name, or a medical term, a voice whispers in my head, “are you demented? What’s wrong with you? You should remember that!” Alzheimer’s Dementia runs in my family, and so I am eager to quiet that voice.

But what works? Well, I talked earlier about diet, but there is more. Both aerobic exercise and strength training improve cognitive function in adults (and kids for that matter.) Right now the minimum of “exercise most days for at least 30 minutes” is just the starting point.  There seems to be a dose response — more exercise is better. (Some studies sited 5 hours per week.)

But is there more? What about the cross word puzzles and board games? Where do they fit in? It  turns out that you will make the most gains in thinking if you stress your brain while you are exercising.  A novel study had adults in their 70s do a complicated set of exercises — they had to follow a specific set of steps, (think square dancing) and at the same time, answer addition and subtraction problems, and do verbal exercises, such as putting animals into categories.  The study compared the brain teaser group to a group of 70 year olds that did the step sequences but didn’t do the brain teasers.  After 26 weeks of training, the brain teaser group scored significantly higher on tests that measure global cognition.

The take away:

  • Do aerobic exercise minimum of 150 minutes per week, and incorporate a couple of days of strength training as well.
  • Try to incorporate more complicated exercises into your routine.  For example, try a dance class.  Trying to memorize the steps while dancing will get your heart and brain working.
  • When you are reading while riding the bike, or listening to a podcast while you walk/run, listen more actively.   At the end of each exercise session, try to summarize what you just read/heard.
  • For extra credit, learn a foreign language while using the elliptical!
Picture of June, 82 year old square dancer

My mother in law June. A killer square dancer and sharp as a tack at 82!

Author: PookieMD

I am a board certified internal medicine physician. I love medicine and seek to bring evidence based medicine to the fitness and wellness world.

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