Brain Games May Not Be as Efficient as Exercise
We’ve all experienced it – starting a sentence, seeing a face, walking into a room, writing a blog…and then forgetting what we were going to say, what is the name, why did we go there, what to write.
Aging is not all about forgetting but there’s no question our memory does fade as we get older. The only real question is not ‘why’ but ‘is this the beginning of the end’ of life as we knew it? For the most part, these brain farts are simply funny interludes; over the long haul, though, they may portend a decline as slow as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s or as fast as TIA’s (transient ischemic attacks) or stroke.
Enter the fantasia we know as ‘memory training’. Why fantasia, you ask? Because they have become very popular with the baby boomers as a form of fitness training for the brain that will slow the loss of memory and recall by engaging in ever-more challenging games you can play at home, alone, on your computer.
And there’s the rub, as far as I’m concerned. As this article summarizes, these games are neither well- or properly-studied so they can’t conclusively report benefits to users, read: purchasers, and/or they may be simply limited to a well-known effect of fitness training called “specificity”.
There are three principles of cardio and strength training that are pretty much agreed upon by scientists and practitioners alike: overload, specificity and recovery.
Overload is simply that you have to make the body do more than it ordinarily would do in order to improve at any particular function. So to run further, you have to train by…running further be it more often, more consistently or simply more distance. To lift more, you have to lift more often, more regularly and more weight. And so on…..
Specificity, the main point here, is that you will get benefits according to how you train. Lift lighter loads with more reps and you will get more muscle endurance. Lift heavy loads but fewer times and you get stronger or more powerful. Likewise, run long and slow and you build endurance; run short and fast and you get more anaerobic power. And so on….
As for recovery, that’s called rest, nutrition and sleep. Both our bodies and our minds require that but in and of themselves will not make you more aerobically or muscularly fit; but without them you can’t optimize the benefits of the training that you do do.
So it is with brain training: without proper rest and recovery your brain will not be able to function at top speeds. But this is not to say that simply sleeping more and better will reduce your risk of dementia. It does say that once you have the beginnings of cognitive decline, lack of sleep or excess mental stress (depression, life itself, etc) can only exacerbate the decline.
So specificity is the main argument here in this article: does doing computer games transfer to remembering the name of that person across the room at a party? Likely, not. It helps you play those games but not remember where your keys are.
What does, if anything? Exercise!!!!!
Yes, many studies have shown that cardio exercise in particular but even strength and balance exercises can improve mental and cognitive function. In some respects, it’s due to improved cerebral blood flow. In others, it may have to do with the nervous sys
tem itself – challenged to push messages back and forth between the musculoskeletal systems and the brain, new nerves are created within the two systems to maintain coordination and function.
But this is more than you really wanted to know.
What is important to remember – and no brain game can help here – is that you’re better off staying fit and getting healthy by exercising regularly, overloading the heart and muscles, specifically for aerobic and strength, with appropriate recovery strategies in order to stay cognitively fit and healthy.
And believe it or not, a qualified personal trainer really can help on all fronts.