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More Than Physical Exercise

If you had to choose between doing crossword puzzles and running 2 miles/day which would you choose?

World Health Organization cites physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality - causing approximately 3.2 million deaths worldwide. However, recent research findings suggest that cognitive training may be as important as physical training when it comes to brain health.

Cognitive training improves cerebral blood flow

Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman (University of Texas) revealed in a recent study that most individuals without dementia experience “slow, continuous and significant age-related changes in the brain, specifically in the areas of memory and executive function, such as planning and problem-solving.” Adding that “We can lose 1-2 percent in global brain blood flow every decade, starting in our 20s.”

Scientific literature is abundant with studies highlighting the cognitive benefits of physical exercise. What Dr. Chapman and her colleagues have done differently in their study is that they compared the effects of cognitive vs. physical exercise on memory and brain function measures such as cerebral blood flow (CBF) and cerebral vascular reactivity (CVR). While CBF an important physiological parameter that is responsible for energy homeostasis of the brain, CVR is an important marker for brain vascular function and reserve.

The study

Participants were middle to older age adults and they were all screened for dementia, cognitive impairment and depression through a phone interview before they were included in the study. Once selected, they were randomly distributed into three groups: 1) cognitive training (n= 18) 2) physical exercise

(n =18) 3) wait-list (n= 19).

The cognitive training group went through Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) which trains metacognitive strategies - the ability to understand one’s own thought processes. Training focused on developing three core cognitive strategies: 1) Strategic Attention 2) Integrative Reasoning 3) Innovation.

  • Strategic Attention – teaches time management and task prioritization skills
  • Integrative Reasoning – teaches cognitive control to “zoom in” to the details of tasks/goals and “zoom out” to come back to the big picture
  • Innovation – teaches perspective taking, flexible thinking skills

The physical training group, on the other hand, went through three physical exercise sessions of 60 minutes per week. Each session involved 5 minutes of warm up, 50 minutes of aerobic exercise, and 5 minutes of cool down.

The participants in both training groups were trained for three times per week over 12 weeks at the Center for BrainHealth and The Cooper Institute.

The results

The results revealed that both the cognitive and physical training can benefit the brain in distinct ways. The cognitive training group showed 8 percent increase in CBF of participants. Dr. Chapman suggests that “To see almost an 8 percent increase in brain blood flow in the cognitive training group may be seen as regaining decades of brain health since blood flow is linked to neural health.”

The physical exercise group, however, had improved short-term memory compared to the cognitive training group. According to Dr. Laura DeFina, one of the study authors, “physical activity can lead to improved fitness levels. In our Cooper Center Longitudinal Study population, higher fitness has been shown to result in less all-cause dementia with aging.”

Overall, a holistic approach to brain health is required in order to improve cognitive functions as a whole.

Like the wise say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In other words, it might be better to start training your brain while you are in your 20s rather than putting off until middle age.

Happy training!


  • 1. Chapman, B. S., Aslan, S., Spence, S. J., Keebler, W. M, DeFina, F. L., Didehbani, N., Perez, M. A., Lu, H., & D’Esposito, M. (2016). Distinct brain and behavioral benefits from cognitive vs. physical training: A randomized trial in aging adults. Frontier
  • 2. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00338
  • 3. http://www.healthiestblog.com/2016/08/exercise-brain-function.php
  • 4. http://www.who.int/topics/physical_activity/en/