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Cognitive Conditioning

Keep a Healthy Mind Through Exercise

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Think of your brain as a muscle – just like the biceps in your arms. You remember the old saying about muscles – Use it or lose it! The essence of this axium is that if you don’t exercise your muscles consistently, they will atrophy, gradually becoming weaker and weaker until they are almost useless. Well, the same holds true for your brain. If you don’t consistently exercise your brain, it too will lose its effectiveness. When your brain loses its effectiveness, you become less and less aware, sharp, responsive, and able to deal with everyday life.

This reality sheds new light on the couch-potato lifestyle. For the stereotypical couch potato that spends most of their free time lounging in the livingroom either channel surfing or web surfing, the cost is not just a growing spare tire around the belly and periodically needing to buy new, larger clothing. The cost is also your long-term mental health, particularly your acuity and memory. Unfortunately, despite what we may want to tell ourselves, operating a remote control and lifting a beverage to your mouth do not constitute physical exertion. And watching the latest sitcom on television or chatting with friends on Facebook most definitely does NOT constitute stimulation of your cognitive abilities.

In recent years, with the rapid increase in cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia, the number of scientific research studies focused on the long-term condition of the brain has also risen dramatically. All of this research has determined definitively that exercising the brain is critical to maintaining strong neuropathic activity. In the simplest terms, this means it helps us to think, think quickly, to remain alert and focused, and to maintain good short-term and long-term memory function. Some of this research has targeted what brain stimulation activities are most beneficial, and begun pointing to the positive impact of a varied program of mental gymnastics. Just as a physical  

stores, and interacting with new people, can have a very beneficial impact on brain stimulation, not to mention making life more interesting. So make it a point to call a different distant old friend or family member every day to vary your conversation and stir up different old memories on a consistent basis.

As each new research study on cognitive conditioning is published, new products and services are being introduced to help provide productive, beneficial stimulation to our brains. Much of the new wave of products is computer-based because it enables the user (you) to be more interactive, see a greater variety of tasks, and automatically increase the level of difficulty as your brain progresses. But while “paper-based” brain teasers, as they are now called, are being de-emphasized by some researchers, there is still a place for them in the overall cognitive conditioning programs of seniors. So go ahead and surf the internet for all the latest computer-based brain stimulation techniques. But in the interest of simplicity and variety, don’t forget the old standbys – crossword puzzles, Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles, trivia games, problem solving brain teasers, and so many others. Also, the “paper-based” visual perception games can be very valuable elements of your overall cognitive conditioning program.

And by the way, the old adage of exercise ”no pain, no gain” has long since been proven to be a falsehood for building muscle or increasing physical stamina. So don’t fall to the temptation of pushing your brain to exercise until it hurts!! It will only make you grow tired of brain exercises in the long run, and give you a headache right now. And be sure to make time for non-painful physical exercise (see our article called “Exercise for Elders – Getting Started”),  along with your cognitive conditioning program. A healthy mind and a healthy body are the keys to a long, fulfilling life.

trainer at your local gym will tell you to exercise all parts of your body, and to do both cardiovascular and strength training, the latest cognitive research is uncovering the need for not only continual learning, but for testing and stretching the abilities of various parts of our brains.

Remember the old comic illustrations of the body builder who concentrated solely on doing “curls for the girls,” building up only his arms. What did his legs look like in comparison? They made him look like a fattened turkey supported on toothpicks. This illustrates the emerging belief, supported by research, that limiting your cognitive conditioning program to doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, while beneficial, is not enough to keep your brain in good condition. Like the body as a whole, the brain is a “system” with various parts that interact with and are dependent on one another. So for the brain as a whole to remain vital and healthy, we need to exercise all parts, including but not limited to reasoning, visual perception, and memory.

New research is also uncovering another less recognized effect that our lives have on our brains. Aside from inactivity, there are other forces that serve to undermine and weaken our brains and our cognitive abilities. Similar to the way that eating junk food robs our bodies of much needed energy, anxiety and stress have a similar effect on our brains by wasting brain power on unproductive thought processes. Under-stimulation from a dull and routine life also tends to result in diminished learning capacity, not to mention just being boring. So dig yourself out of your rut and take your doctor’s advice to reduce the stress in your life. Or at least do some research on how to manage and deal with the stress you can’t seem to eliminate. For your daily routine, even the simplest changes, like varying your route getting to work and local