Which is more important for brain health: physical exercise or cognitive engagement?

Q: Which is more important for brain health: physical exercise or cognitive engagement (such as thinking and problem solving activities)?Running Seniors

A: A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, and highlighted in Time magazine (Jan. 17, 2012), adds to growing evidence that doing physical exercise in combination with cognitive engagement can enhance brain health.

Led by scientist Cay Anderson-Hanley at Union College, the research team randomly assigned older adults to one of two different physical exercise groups. In the first group, participants completed an exercise program on a traditional stationary bicycle. In the second group, participants completed a similar exercise program using a “cybercycle,” a stationary bicycle with an interactive computer-based simulation program displayed on a screen. On a typical cybercycle, your actions on the bike direct your on-screen character to do things like ride around obstacles, go up and down hills, or race a computer-based competitor.

Cybercycling gives an extra brain boost!

After three months, both groups showed improvement on tests of brain function (i.e. thinking speed and working memory). The interesting result was that the participants in the cybercycle group, who combined exercise with the cognitively challenging computer program, showed equal physical exertion compared to the traditional group, with greater gains in tests of brain function.

So, to answer the question of physical exercise versus cognitive engagement – it seems that both are great, and combining the two may be even better. Intrigued by the cybercycle? Find a local gym and give it a try.

But don’t be put off by the fancy equipment. You can marry physical and cognitive engagement without machinery in any number of ways:

  • The next time you go for a brisk walk, find a partner and enjoy some stimulating conversation;
  • Practice your rusty French skills in your mind when you next carry home your groceries;
  • Sign up for that dance class you always wanted to take and learn some new moves.

References: Exergaming and older adult cognition: a cluster randomized clinical trial. Anderson-Hanley C, Arciero PJ, Brickman AM, Nimon JP, Okuma N, Westen SC, Merz ME, Pence BD, Woods JA, Kramer AF, Zimmerman EA. Am J Prev Med. 2012 Feb;42(2):109-19. PMID:22261206

Dr. Susan Vandermorris
Neuropsychology and Cognitive Health Program at Baycrest

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