A while back, several companies designed special computerized mental exercises that were supposed to be good for training the brain. Although heavily marketed, these programs were disappointing and didn’t do much good.
The puzzles and other mental activities produced short term benefits for memory and thinking, but long-term the training didn’t seem to stick. The improvements quickly faded.
But researchers now say the reason for the ineffectiveness resides in a missing factor that needs to be included with computerized brain training.
New studies suggest that if you add physical exercise to your brain training program you may have a game changer that results in a healthier brain. We’re living in a material world and you need to work with your brain’s material.
Research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign shows that computerized exercises are not enough to bump up your thinking skills and memory. You have to give your body a little workout, too. It may also help to include mild brain stimulation, i.e. transcranial direct current stimulation which consists of low-level electrical current applied to the scalp.1
But exercise is crucial.
Says researcher Aaron Barbey, “Physical activity and aerobic fitness are known to have beneficial effects on the underlying structures and functions of the brain.”
Ride a Bike, Stimulate Your Brain
Along with going for brisk walks or jogging to help improve your brain, a study conducted by researchers in Asia and Italy shows that riding an exercise bike helps brain training produce better results.
In this investigation, people in the study pedaled an exercise bike while learning a foreign language, pedaling at a pace about two-thirds of their sprinting speed.
They continued to pedal at a relaxed rate during the lesson and then kept pedaling for about 15 minutes after the lesson was over.
Then researchers compared the bike riders’ mastery of new vocabulary to that of folks who had learned new words but who had not pedaled a bike.
It turned out that, compared to people who didn’t exercise during the language lessons, the exercisers:2
- Got higher grades on vocabulary tests taken immediately after each lesson.
- Were better at distinguishing sentences that made sense in the foreign language from nonsensical phrases.
- Enjoyed longer lasting memory and comprehension of what they had learned when retested a month after the lessons had ended.
The researchers point out that exercise can cement memory and learning – and this applies to either training your brain on a video game or taking a language lesson – because it improves the connections between the brain’s neurons. Exercise accelerates the creation of new networks among the neurons and involves revamping synapses – the brain’s communication channels that help neurons coordinate their activities.3
And there’s more – Exercise also stimulates brain cells to create chemicals called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF). Both of these molecules take part in repairing neurons and keeping them functioning properly. They also boost the creation of new network connections in the brain.4
Aerobic exercise like walking, running, swimming or biking is clearly beneficial, but doing a bit of weight lifting may also help your brain retain its training. A study at the University Eastern Finland shows that greater muscle strength is linked to better memory and thinking abilities.5
The message in all this is that you have to keep your body moving to keep your brain agile. Brain training on the computer may help, but the effects won’t last if you don’t get up and move around.