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Cross-Train Your Brain: Walk with a Friend

Dr.Gary Small Gene Stone Default

The third of five conversations between brain expert Dr. Gary Small and health writer Gene Stone.

Gene Stone: In our last conversation, we talked about how mental exercises—like reading, doing puzzles and games, and even searching on Google—can build up brain muscle.
Gary Small: Yes. As with bodybuilders' bodies, the more you work out your brain, the more efficient it becomes.
Stone: How does that work?
Small: When we teach memory techniques, people's memory performance scores improve, but when we look at their brains in the MRI scanner, we see less neural activity. In other words, people develop brain efficiency, just as they do with physical activity. When you start, say, lifting weights, you might begin at thirty pounds, and eventually move to fifty, exerting less energy as you go. The same thing happens with the brain. When we are solving a mental puzzle, learning a new memory technique, or searching for information online, our neural circuits are very active. But when we master a mental task—perhaps learn a memory technique so it is almost automatic—our neural circuits are much less active. They become more efficient. We are better at the memory task and exert less mental energy when learning and recalling the information.
Stone: And without doing these kinds of exercises, our mental skills deteriorate?
Small: Studies show that by age forty-five the average individual's memory is definitely less efficient than their memory twenty years earlier.
Stone: So what do you recommend people do to become brain builders?
Small: There are two categories of brain exercise: mental stimulation exercises like games and puzzles, and specific methods that build your memory and cognitive abilities so that your everyday memory abilities improve. So I tell people to try to keep their minds stimulated with activities they really like. If you don't enjoy the mental activity, don't do it. For example, some people don't like doing puzzles but might enjoy learning a language.
Stone: What's are some things people like that they might not necessarily think of as a brain-builder?
Small: Well for one, what we're doing right now. Just having a conversation. It's great stimulation, thinking about what we're going to say next, going back and forth. Combining conversation with other brain healthy strategies is very effective. Just taking a walk with a friend can be a triple threat to Alzheimer's: the aerobic conditioning from a brisk walk pumps oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells, the conversation stimulates your mind, and if you talk about something that bothers you, it can lower your stress level.
Stone: Any other suggestions?
Small: Cross-train your brain. The right brain is more visual, the left more logical. So just as you cross-train your body at the gym—working on the lower body one day, the upper body the next—you can do the same with your brain. Do a jigsaw puzzle one day to tweak your right brain, then the next day do a crossword puzzle to get your left brain working. You'll be building brain muscle and having fun at the same time.

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