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Does Physical Exercise Trump Mental Exercise?

by Dr. Sara Sawtelle


A recent article in Time Health and Family, Exercise Trumps Brain Games in Keeping our Minds Intact, reports on the findings from a study in Scotland. The study compared MRIs of adults to see how much brain shrinkage occurred over a three-year period, from age 70 to age 73. The subjects filled out a survey that asked about their exercise habits and their mental and social activities. According to the article, the researchers concluded that brain shrinkage was less for those who were physically active than for those who participated in mentally engaging and social activities, with the least amount of shrinkage for those who were most physically active.

The article did not report some key information. For example, for the most physically active persons in the study, was the physical activity also social in nature? How mentally active were they? And how healthy were they overall?

Yes, as we grow older our brains get smaller, brain cells die, and our neural network in our 40s (to say nothing of our 70s) is not as connected as it was in our teens. And, yes, the aging process can be slowed, but suggesting that physical exercise is all we need is a one-sided picture.

There is not just one single thing that changes the ways our brains function. Physical activity is important to help keep brains and minds healthy, but exercise does not trump brain training, as the article claims. It takes exercise, social interaction, healthy food choices, plenty of water and it takes mental activity. Most of the research says it is not either/or; it is ALL. It is balance.

When it comes to mental activity, the kind of activity is just as important. Reading a book, or doing a crossword puzzle or Sudoku, if those are things we always do, just reinforces existing connections. Our brains like new and complex things that are unexpected and require work to process. That is when our brains grow. Our brains grow when what we are doing requires integration of multiple processes, such as visual, auditory and memory. And it cannot be an occasional activity. The mental activity needs to be as regular as the physical activity. That is the kind of mental exercise that makes a difference.

Well, since I am closer to 70 than I am to my teens, it is time to stop this particular mental activity, eat an apple, drink some water and go for a walk with a friend. Here’s to engaging our brains and bodies in every way!

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