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How Brain Exercises Help Your Body

New studies show surprising ways that training your brain can pay off

posted by Laine Bergeson, September 9, 2014 More by this author

Illustration of active brain

Laine has researched and written about health for the past 15 years, covering everything from the nutritional benefits of rhubarb to the proper way to swing a kettlebell.


Illustration of active brain
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Brain exercises may be just as good for your balance as for your mental acuity, according to two recent studies.

Previous research has shown that physical exercise benefits the brain, but this is among the first research to show that exercise works in the other direction: Training the brain has direct benefits for the body. “It’s cool to see research that closes the loop in the other direction,” says Henry Mahnke, CEO of Posit Science, which designed the cognitive training games used in the study. “We hope [research like this] will help people take care of their brains the way they take care of their bodies.”

(MORE: Three Easy Ways to Whip Your Brain Into Shape)

The studies, one published in The Journal of Gerontology and one pending publication in Health Education & Behavior, found that just 20 to 30 hours of cognitive training could help older adults maintain or improve their balance, increase their gait speed and reduce their fall risk — a significant set of findings considering the real-world impact of falls.

Even when adults fall and are not injured, they can develop a fear of falling and they often limit their activities as a result. This can cause a further erosion of physical fitness and mobility, which, notes the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “increases their actual risk of falling.”

“Older adults fear slowing down the most,” says Fredric Wolinsky, health management and policy department chair at the University of Iowa. “If you can help people slow down less, they will be happier.”

(MORE: How You Can Make Your Brain Smarter Every Day)

How the Brain Training Worked

So can brain training improve mobility? “Absolutely,” says Renae Smith-Ray, a research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Smith-Ray led both research studies.

The first study looked at 51 adults age 70 and older (mean age: 83), some of whom completed 30 hours of cognitive training over 10 weeks. Their computer-based brain exercises focused on speed of processing, attention and inhibition.

At the beginning of the study, both groups were on the cusp of “high risk” for falls as defined by the CDC. Within months, the control group that did no training advanced into the high-risk category, while the brain-trained group did not. This group also had significantly better balance scores.

The second study looked at 45 adults aged 65+ (mean age: 72) who are aging-in-place in their homes. The results were similarly encouraging: Just 20 hours of training showed statistically significant differences in fall risk, with balance improving among the intervention group and declining in the control group. They also found statistically significant improvements in gait speed in the intervention group.  

(MORE: Can Bubbly Boost Brain Power)

“Although these two studies were relatively small,” says Smith-Ray, “the magnitude of the effect is really quite promising.”

Posit Science co-founder, Jeff Zimman agrees. “These two papers are significant because they indicate that improving various parts of the cognitive system that enable balance and mobility actually does actually improve balance and mobility," he says.

How To Boost Brainpower

Here are ways to recreate the benefits of the studies at home:

Brain Games. In her first-of-a-kind studies, Smith-Ray and her team used cognitive training programs designed by Posit Science, the makers of BrainHQ. With a $14 monthly subscription, you have access to the games she used in her research. Designed by neuroscientists, the games help focus attention, build brain speed, improve memory, and sharpen intelligence.

More brain games. Lumosity offers a similar service — neuroscientist-designed games that target a wide variety of cognitive skills. Basic membership is free, but a paid account (price varies by the subscription) gives you personalized training, access to over 40 different and tests to measure your improvement.

Learn something new. While these recent studies relied on specific cognitive training software, Smith-Ray says that “anything that gets you out of your comfort zone” can help the brain. Learn a new language, take up a musical instrument, join a new social group. New activities help build new neural pathways, which keeps the brain young.