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The Brain Training Game


Crossword puzzles alone won’t give your brain what it needs for optimal health across the lifespan.

Today, an Internet search of "brain training" will yield results that almost entirely include websites, apps, or subscriptions for stationary activities such as crosswords, Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles, or the latest rage – Wordle – an online and social media-based word game. While these activities are touted for their brain-boosting potential, they (and we) can miss a fundamental truth about brain health. Dynamic activities, such as competitive sports or cardiovascular exercise, are essential for optimal brain health across the lifespan. Moreover, there’s increasing evidence demonstrating “dual tasking” (such as simultaneous participation in physical and cognitive training activities), and progressively increasing a cognitive load with distractions and the pressure of limited time can be of significant additional benefit. Doing what is best for our brains is crucial because not every touted brain-boosting activity is created equal.

No matter how old you are or whether you're healthy or currently have a neurologic condition, science has proven that your brain loves to learn. How efficient the brain is at learning or adapting can significantly impact how we respond to a change in our environment or an injury throughout a lifetime. This concept is medically referred to as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the "brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life." But here's the catch – for the brain's neurons to form connections that are ultimately beneficial to an individual, those neurons must have the correct type of stimulation.

There is no offense to online "brain game" apps, but no one needs a subscription to train the brain for optimal health and performance. I'm also less inclined to suggest most online and social media-based gaming purportedly designed for "brain-training" purposes. I say this because these modalities can get expensive and potentially addicting in a way that might have adverse brain health effects, which eventually reduce the overall benefit. Here's what I suggest: Identify a reputable clinician who can assist with evaluating your individual performance and recommend specific interventions. And if you’d prefer a less “clinical” pursuit, approach brain training with the simple goal of consistently learning something new that challenges you.

For some, learning a new thing might involve acquiring a foreign language or playing a musical instrument. For others, either idea might seem daunting or out of reach. No problem! For those who don't want to bite off more than they can chew, taking a different route to work in the morning or learning to make a new meal recipe is beneficial for brain health. Plus, unlike the stationary activity of playing an online word game, these activities also require the body to move. And as it turns out, moving the body is crucial for optimal brain health.

The most recent science available indicates that aerobic exercise (think walking, running, or cycling, for example) has an extremely significant and positive effect on the brain's health. But I have another catch – for the best brain health benefits – the aerobic exercise being engaged in must be challenging. As I explained previously, learning something new and challenging is a big deal for your brain. Let's take walking, for example. A walk around the block fits the bill as "exercise." But how many times have you done that? Is it new? Is it challenging? If your answers lead you to conclude that this activity isn't that challenging, it's time to switch it up. What if you walked in a different direction around the block? What if you moved the environment of your walk to a place you've never walked before? What if you picked up the pace? Or tried a “walking meditation”? These are questions to ask yourself and simple ways to evaluate whether the activity is a good amount "new and challenging" for your brain.

Learning something new and challenging while regularly moving your body is healthy fuel for your brain. More and more research today confirms that these elements are also protective armor against cognitive dysfunction and neurologic diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease later in life. No matter how old you are, and even if you can't "see" the benefits, consistently challenging your brain to new experiences and activities will work wonders today and well into the future.