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Which is better ? Exercise or keeping mentally active ?

To achieve a higher level of brain fitness we need of course to do both. But is one  better than the other for staving off cognitive decline?
If you are adverse to exercise, could you maintain your cognition through enhanced mental activity alone?

Some researchers have been  trying to  answer  that question and there is some very exciting research being done right here in West Australia by the McCusker Foundation, which may have an answer for us some time this year when the results of their studies get published.

Meanwhile a report recently published in JAMA examined the difference in the results for 126 people who were allocated to do mental activity using a computer or watching an educational DVD and physical exercise either as aerobics or light stretching and toning over a 12-week period.
The mental activity was for one hour three times a week
The physical activity was also for an hour three times a week

All of the participants were in the older age range and had expressed a concern that their memory or thinking skills had declined to some extent.

Group A did Intensive computer work  + aerobics
Group B did intensive computer work + light stretching and toning
Group C watched educational DVDs + aerobics
Group D watched educational DVDs + light stretching and toning

The results?

They all got better scores on thinking with no real differences between the groups.
Meaning it is probably the AMOUNT of activity that is undertaken rather then the TYPE that matters.

Many studies have reported the benefits of exercise in reducing brain shrinking and enhancing cognition.

Other studies have reported how keeping mentally active is good for maintaining cognitive function with age.

The authors of this report included Deborah Barnes and Kristine Yaffe who have previously identified the top potentially modifiable risk factors that could potentially reduce the expected number of people likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease by 50%. It has also been suggested that simply reducing the amount of physical inactivity by 25% across the world could prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in one million people. I think that is another way of saying we all need to move more!

Their findings here support the need for our older citizens to try to maintain cognitive function by combining mental and physical activities.

Two other well-respected researchers in this areas, none other than Nicola Lautenschlager and Kay Cox, (both from W.A)  who were invited to comment on the findings. They were pleased that the study confirmed the benefits of mental and physical activity to cognition, even over a short period of time i.e. 12 weeks. They did however wonder whether the lack of difference shown between the different groups perhaps reflected the short-term nature of the trial. It may be that longer-term interventions would demonstrate whether in fact there is a meaningful difference in the types of activity chosen.
The answer to that question remains tantalising unanswered for the present.

The bottom line is we need to do both. It’s about allocating enough time over the course of the week to ensure you achieve a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity and an equivalent amount of time to keep mentally engaged too. It currently matters less what you choose to do, it matter more simply that you do it.

What also matters of course is not to wait until later in life to do this. The earlier we start the better for maintaining good cognition in the first place.

Brain fitness covers the lifespan.

Plus these studies only cover two elements of brain fitness, the others being to follow a brain healthy diet a.k.a the Mediterranean diet and keeping stress levels under control. Brain fitness requires all four elements to maximise our brains’ capability and performance.

1.    Deborah E. Barnes, PhD, MPH; Wendy Santos-Modesitt, MA; Gina Poelke, PhD; Arthur F. Kramer, PhD; Cynthia Castro, PhD; Laura E. Middleton, PhD; Kristine Yaffe, MD. The Mental Activity and eXercise (MAX) Trial A Randomized Controlled Trial to Enhance Cognitive Function in Older Adults The Mental Activity and eXercise (MAX) Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, 2013; DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.189
2.    Nicola T. Lautenschlager, MD; Kay L. Cox, PhD. Can Participation in Mental and Physical Activity Protect Cognition in Old Age? JAMA Internal Medicine, 2013; DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.206

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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