Brain training has become popular in the last few years, but does it live up to the hype?
Unfortunately, playing games on your phone doesn’t do much for your brain, aside from make you better at playing those games. (2)
Does that mean you are doomed to suffer from declining cognitive function as you age?
There are activities which have demonstrated positive effects on both brain structure and function.
Despite what advertisers tell you, these are not found in your app store.
So what can you do to “train your brain” and make it (and the rest of you) healthier?
Learn A Language
Learning a language is one of the best things you can do for your brain, and your life.
Learning a language opens up your world, from business to social and travel opportunities.
The added bonus is that it reshapes your brain, improving both the structure and function, and potentially helping stave off Alzheimer’s. (3, 4)
In this case, apps can be helpful, but nothing beats engaging in conversations – you are challenged to think in a different language, which is fantastic for cognitive function.
What’s great is that whilst becoming fluent is great for the brain (and your life), the act of learning a language, even if you struggle, still yields improvements.
Learn an Instrument
Learning an instrument has similar effects on the brain to learning a language.
Both the structure of the brain as well as the function are affected positively.
It seems that in the case of musical instruments, the longer you have played them, the better. (5, 6, 7) This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother if you are “older”, it simply means, once you start, keep it up, the benefits are well worth the effort!
One of the more interesting findings made by researchers, is that playing an instrument can help mitigate hearing decline due to ageing as well!
This occurs because we “hear” with our brain. Our ears translate vibrations of the air to electrical impulses that our brains decipher as sounds, and it is thought that playing an instrument helps enhance “meaning” associated with sound, allowing better function when hearing.
Exercise is probably the best brain training activity of them all, because it offers so many benefits not only to your brain, but body and soul as well.
It makes sense that moving is so good for our brain, given how much real estate in our heads is allocated to performing and controlling movement.
The list of studied effects of exercise on brain training includes:
- Structural growth via increased signalling of various growth factors.
- Improved memory and cognitive function.
- Delayed onset of neuro-degenerative diseases.
So what’s the best exercise for your brain?
There is research on cardio exercise (running, cycling, walking etc) and strength training, but not much on complex functional movements.
I would hypothesise, that the best form of exercise for your brain is a circuit style workout that challenges you to move in 3 dimensions, pushing, pulling and carrying different loads over different levels – from the ground to standing.
Crossing midline (imagine a line vertically through your body, cutting it into two halves) movements are super charged brain boosting exercises (they use low level versions of these movements in neuro-rehab).
Examples of movements that cross midline:
- Juggling (8)
- Alternate single leg/arm movements
- Rotational movements
Brain training that works. Movements that involve crossing midline are super charged brain boosting exercises. Here I’m performing a standing cross crawl which involves contra-lateral arm and leg movement across the midline along with the stability challenge of standing on one leg. Alternating from side to side, these are a great option if you’re stuck at a desk and in a slump or in between heavy sets at the gym. #integrativeosteopathy #osteopathy #osteo #fitzroynorth #crosscrawls #neuroscience #neurorehab #pressingreset #mobility #stability #functionalmovement
Of course, if this sounds too much, just get some vigorous walking in, the research is still positive – move it or lose it (brain function that is).
Meditation has been getting a lot of attention from scientists lately.
Research is showing positive changes to brain areas involved in stress and pain, along with global improvements to brain structure and function.
A while back I wrote an article on mindfulness for pain management – the principles described in it are relevant to brain health too.
Whether you do focused meditation, pray or simply spend time quietly contemplating, it is a fair assumption to say that inward focused practices can all have a positive affect on your brain.
Not everyone responds to coffee positively, but if you respond well, enjoy it or are addicted to it (not the greatest thing mind you), then there is some positive news.
Drinking u coffee a day can be neuroprotective (9).
I’m not sure it makes your brain better, but it can help stave off neurodegenerative diseases, which I guess, makes your brain better simply by virtue of not getting worse.
Of course, coffee has adverse effects that are more pronounced in some people, so exercise good judgement when deciding whether coffee “works” for you.
Brain training apps don’t work to make you smarter or improve the structure and function of your brain.
In fact, not much can make you more intelligent, as psychologists have been trying for almost 100 years to do, with very little success.
There are many things you can do to improve your brain health and potentially protect yourself against neurodegenerative diseases.
Like all biological cells, the brain responds to stimuli, and if you use your brain for challenging stimuli, it responds positively, growing new neural connections, increasing in density and improving in function.
Ideally, you will have a coffee before you exercise with your trainer who speaks to you in a new language, followed by an evening meditation before you play your instrument of choice.
Integrative Osteopathy is an osteopathic practice located in the heart of Fitzroy North, within the reputable Healthy Fit gym. With a focus on education, manual therapy, and active rehabilitation, Integrative Osteopathy offers individual solutions to various painful problems.
If you liked this article, and would like to learn more about maintaining brain and body health throughout your life, call 0448 052 754 to have a chat with Nick, or, to make an appointment online, click here.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.