Sport or brain training - which makes the brain fitter?

How does the brain stay fit in old age - with sport or with brain training on the computer? Researchers at the Charité, Berlin, investigated this question in a study. Whether and to what extent physical and mental activities increase cognitive performance in older women was the aim of a study conducted by the Charité in Berlin. Until now, there have been studies that examined either the effects of physical or mental exercise on mental performance. Until then, no one had conducted a direct comparison of which type of exercise is better for the brain. For the Berlin study, 259 female participants were selected. The prerequisite for participation was that the women were over 70 years old, physically and mentally healthy and had not previously been involved with computers or sports. After an initial psychological and sports medical examination, the women were randomly divided into three groups: In the computer group, the women were to learn how to use computers and the internet. In the exercise group, the women trained in sports exercises. The third group was the control group, which did no exercises.

Sports and computer courses in comparison

The sports and computer courses took place about three times a week within 6 months and lasted 90 min each. The exercise programme of the sports group consisted of an aerobic fitness programme that trained endurance, strength and also flexibility and also included balance and coordination exercises (bicycle ergometer, dumbbell training, ball games, dance, etc.).) The computer course dealt with heterogeneous and multifaceted topics, such as creative tasks and also exercises that required coordination and memory (e.g. dealing with software and hardware, image and video editing, games, texting and internet use). Both courses were led by specially trained tutors. The control group did not participate in any of the courses and were expected to continue their lives as before. Before and after the project, the women's mental performance was assessed using seven scientific tests. The question was whether the brain of the participants who had regularly attended their groups became more efficient than that of the women without a course. The aim was also to compare which of the courses was more effective for brain training.

Brain training and sport, both equally effective for the brain

As expected, both the sports and the computer course (the so-called intervention groups) led to positive effects on mental performance. That is, some cognitive parameters improved in the intervention groups while they remained the same in the control group. Other cognitive parameters deteriorated in the control group but remained constant in the intervention groups during the study period. Thus, both the physical activation in the sports group and the mental activation in the computer group had a positive effect on the mental performance of the participants. Surprisingly, however, there were no differences in the effectiveness of computer and sports training; both were equally effective for the brain. The authors explain this by saying that above all the novelty value and the mental stimulation of the activities that were completely unfamiliar to the women (sporting activity and computer work) were decisive for the positive effects on cognitive development. So it seems to be equally good for the brain whether one does sport or keeps purely mentally active - but this is certainly not true for physical fitness.   Source: Klusmann V. et al.: Complex Mental and Physical Activity in Older Women and Cognitive Performance: A 6-month Randomized Controlled Trial