Is Physical Exercise Better Than Brain Exercise for Seniors?

The split between mind and body seems clearest in the realm of exercise. Each is good for us, but is one better?

Professor Sam Wang, Ph.D. Molecular Molecular Biology and Neuroscience, Princeton University covers the subject extensively in Lecture 23 of his course The Neuroscience of Everyday Life which I took from The Great Courses.

Opinion has been split on the subject.

“It is exercise alone that supports the spirits and keeps the mind in vigor.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero – 65 BC.

“Exercise invigorates and enlivens all the faculties of body and mind…. It spreads a gladness and a satisfaction over our minds and qualifies us for every sort of business, and every sort of pleasure.” – John Adams, Second President of the U.S.

On the other hand, that curmudgeon, Mark Twain said, “I take my only exercise acting as pallbearer at the funeral of my friends who exercise regularly.”


The business of brain-training is a multi-million dollar operation. It includes software and games we can play on our computers, Nintendo, smart phones as well as specialized machines. Also, there are the puzzles, like Sudoku, crosswords and other pattern recognition games.

Professor Wang says that while these products are inspired by science they have not necessarily been proven by science. The benefits tend to be specific to the task practiced. If you do Sudoku puzzles, you will develop skills for doing Sudoku puzzles, but they won’t help your working memory.

“Unless the activities that you’re practicing span a broad spectrum of abilities, then there is not a proven general benefit to these mental fitness programs. So, the idea that any single brain exercise program late in life can act as a quick fix for general mental function is almost entirely faith-based,” Professor Wang said.

Also, the effect size of the improvement from doing these brain-training exercises is really rather minimal. The one exception is reaction time. This can be improved which can increase driving safety of seniors. So, there is a tangible benefit from that.

Will power is also helped by brain training.

The professor says, “Exercise, especially aerobic exercise of the type that gets your heart rate up, is strongly protective of brain functions.”

The effect is largest if you start in middle age.

People who exercise starting from middle age are 1/3 as likely to get Alzheimer’s in their 70’s. If they start in their 60’s the risk drops by half.

“Exercise does many things that improve our cognitive abilities. It increases blood flow to the brain; triggers secretion of neurotropic factors which improve dendritic growth; secretes naturally occurring opiates (endorphins), reduces stress hormone secretion; and improves cardiovascular health which reduces risk of stroke,” Professor Wang says.

The apparent downside of exercise is that the benefits are short-lived. They last as long as the exercise program or some weeks afterwards. This is in contrast to brain games which give long-lasting benefits but very small.

According to the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services:

Adults 18 to 64 should get:

2.5 hours/wk of moderate intensity exercise.

OR 1.25 hours a week of vigorous aerobic physical activity

Or Some combination of the above – equivalent episodes of at least 10 minutes spread throughout the week

Professor Wang summed up the benefits of exercise as follows:

Improved cardiovascular function

Reduction of depression

Improved cognitive function which also extend to younger people, not just seniors

He concluded that interventions that are good for the heart are good for the brain as well. Intellectual engagement and physical activity are major principles for retaining brain function as well as heart health. Two principles – Sound mind in a sound body – Use it or Lose it.

Regular readers know that the subject of brain health is near and dear to the blog. Some of our previous items include: How to Keep Your Mind Sharp, How Does Exercise Benefit the Brain?, Sleep and the Brain, Brain Fitness, Exercise, Aging and the Brain, Owning a Pet Can Benefit Your Mental and Physical Health. I have a Page Important Facts About Your Brain (and Exercise Benefits).

While some of the information in Professor Wang’s lecture was covered in previous blog posts, I thought his total overview was particularly insightful.


1 Comment

Filed under aging brain, brain, brain exercise, brain function, brain health, cardio exercise, Exercise, exercise and brain health

One response to “Is Physical Exercise Better Than Brain Exercise for Seniors?

  1. I’d tend to think, understanding my limits, that exercise would trump brain games, however I would add the obvious caveat that keeping mentally sharp is a no-brainer.



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