What's the Best Brain Exercise?


senior member
Concord, NH
As study after study crosses my desk extolling the many and varied virtues of electronic games, I cant help but wonder: Why is everyone so excited about trading real activities for virtual ones?

Apparently, these electronic and video games are fun and useful, too. Ive reported on studies showing how video games can improve hand-eye coordination and sharpen mental functions, such as decision making. But I have to admit that Im 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 its 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. Its 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 brains 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 someones 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. Bakers advice couldnt 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, associate professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle.

Arthur E. Kramer, PhD, 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 Universitys Biomedical Imaging Center.
I think it's probably good to do both. For those who can't exercise at all, games are probably better than nothing. People who are healthy enough to do so without getting sicker would benefit from exercise quite a bit I think, and might benefit more if they also gaming.


Senior Member
Logan, Queensland, Australia
My advice: find something fun and play with it, don't just play at it

Hi, my advice is do something you find interesting. If that is computer games, great. Otherwise, don't worry. Doing anything with ME/CFS is like a huge exercise in mental gymnastics. At times walking from one side of a room to the other is a brain strain. I play open world role playing computer games, and a few strategy games that I keep alternating between. If you are going to play games, keep changing the game, keep looking for new ways to play ... play with it and you will exercise your mind.

Do avoid aerobic exercise though. It has the opposite effect on us, resulting in decreased mental functioning.

There is a reason why children play, it trains the brain. The more out-of-the-box you can approach a game, the more you will get from it.



Daughters High School Graduation
Upstate SC, USA
For those that can't play video games, like me. I find simple games like solitaire and word games (hidden word, crossword) to help me. I have a tendancy to loose my ability to spell words, mostly reversing 2 vowels. Doing these word puzzles help me get through this. I also will occaisionally have problems writing my signature, but I get tripped up at the same place everytime.


Senior Member
Another crossword person here. One good thing about them, unlike video games etc, is that they are not time based, there is no deadline -- you can put a crossword down and pick it up again whenever you want. IOW, you can easily pace yourself with a crossword.

(I realise crosswords and word games in general are not everybody's cup of tea. Horses for courses.)


Senior Member
Southeast US
Sudoku was recommended by a doctor. One day I decided to try one. I found it so exhausting, it was the only thing I could do that day... so I went back to my dot-to-dot book. Forging new neuropathways in the brain is the whole idea. Learning a new language, a new instrument, anything new is probably the best thing to do.