What's The Best Brain Exercise?
Electronic and video games are fun and useful. Video games can improve hand-eye coordination and sharpen mental functions, such as decision making. But I have to admit that I’m skeptical that such games -- even ones that require players to be physically active -- can ever be a legitimate substitute for actual exercise and sports. By that I mean the sorts of activities that get you breathing in deep gulps... that make your heart beat fast... where you have to think on your feet and make split-second decisions.
I recently spoke with two well-known researchers, Laura D. Baker, PhD, at University of Washington School of Medicine, and Arthur F. Kramer, PhD, director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about this topic and learned of a number of studies that are examining how such physical exercise benefits the mind.
For instance, Dr. Baker and her colleagues recently completed a study showing that six months of aerobic exercise improved cognitive functions (including attention, speed of processing information and the ability to switch quickly from one task to another) of aging people (average age 70) with mild memory problems. The researchers noted that other studies have shown this to be true for people of other ages as well, including young adults and older ones who have no memory challenges. Meanwhile, Dr. Kramer and his research team have conducted exercise studies demonstrating that aerobic fitness improves memory in preadolescent children.
Real Mind-Body Benefits?
I was curious about whether physical exercise has been shown to improve any of the same mental functions associated with video games -- hand-eye coordination, decision making, multitasking and memory. "One would think so," Dr. Kramer said, noting that this is one of the questions being explored in current research. So far the results are preliminary, he told me, but all point in the direction of "yes."
To illustrate, he described one of his recent studies examining how multitasking affects cognition. Researchers recruited college students to walk across a "virtual street" while listening to an iPod or talking on a cell phone. It turned out that those who were most adept at crossing the street safely while using these devices had one thing in common -- they were athletes. Dr. Kramer said that further studies will examine whether this is due to natural selection (perhaps people who are better at multitasking are the ones likely to engage in sports) or the result of the sports they play. But, he said, previous research indicates that it’s likely the latter -- fitness training, including playing a sport, helps sharpen your ability to multitask.
Another study is looking specifically at blood circulation and the brain. It’s commonly known that physical activity boosts circulation, delivering more nutrients to the brain. Dr. Baker told me that researchers are now examining how aging slows this process, causing the accumulation of what she calls "gunk" in the blood vessels. "This debris can be especially harmful in the frontal lobes of the brain that support our ability to make quick decisions, to process information and to multitask," she noted, adding that exercise might be a way to clean up the vessels to improve blood flow.
How? Dr. Baker explained that the capillaries that branch from the main arteries in the brain’s frontal lobes are longer than in other brain regions, which means that the frontal lobes provide more potential places for debris buildup as we grow older. Multitasking ability is compromised for all of us as we age, she said, adding that research appears to support the theory that aerobic exercise increases flow and reduces some of the buildup. Moreover, Dr. Baker said, physical exercise increases sensitivity to insulin, an effect that enables the brain to make better use of its natural fuel, glucose.
Aerobic Exercise Sharpens Memory
Aerobic exercise also appears to benefit the hippocampus, said Dr. Kramer, referring to the part of the brain involved with memory, especially memory that involves remembering associations, such as someone’s name, face, etc. "In the real world, this means that aerobic exercise is likely to help in such tasks as cooking a seven-course meal (which requires a good memory) or driving in an unfamiliar environment (requiring an accurate sense of space)." Dr. Kramer also pointed out that aerobic exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which helps create a sense of well-being.
Both experts emphasized that any activity that gets the heart and lungs working harder is likely to increase your brain power -- bicycling, swimming, ice skating, tennis, basketball, racketball, walking, jogging, running and even some types of dancing. Dr. Baker’s advice couldn’t be simpler: "Find an activity you love and do it often."
My conclusion? Playing video games is better for your brain than, say, sitting passively on the couch in front of a TV set. But when it comes to brain-building and overall benefit, I think video and electronic games are significantly outclassed by vigorous physical exercise!
Laura D. Baker, PhD, is associate professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle.
Arthur E. Kramer, PhD, is professor of psychology, division of visual cognition and human performance, director, Beekman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and director of the University’s Biomedical Imaging Center.