Give Your Brain a Healthy Workout

Scientists are closing in on which parts of the brain have malfunctions that lead to essential tremor (ET). Although no one knows yet what causes those malfunctions to begin, there is imaging-based evidence of physical differences between the brains of people who have ET and the brains of those who don’t. For instance, in ET cases a special type of MRI can detect a “suppression of general connectivity in the cerebellum, which is in agreement with the concept of ET as a disorder with cerebellar damage.”1 In other words, some parts of brain aren’t networking with other parts as well as they could be.

On the other hand, in those with ET, the vast—and I mean VAST—majority of the brain is functioning perfectly fine. And all brain function can improve with exercise, both physical and mental.

Physical exercise helps the brain

Did you know that working out on a regular basis not only helps your heart, metabolic rate, strength, etc., it is beneficial for your brain? Let’s say you do aerobic walking four times a week for a half hour at a time. The Harvard Health Blog explains some of the benefits for your brain:

  • It stimulates the release of growth factors and boost brain cell health, help develop new blood vessels to nourish brain cells, and affect the development and survival of new brain cells
  • It indirectly helps the brain by promoting better sleep and improving stress management so our thinking isn’t hindered by fatigue or anxiety
  • It appears to increase the size of certain brain regions associated with memory and thinking2.

Mental exercise helps the brain

Did you know that brains burn calories? Does that surprise you? According to an article in Scientific American, “If we assume an average resting metabolic rate of 1,300 calories, then the brain consumes 260 of those calories just to keep things in order.”3

Well, giving your brain a workout does not actually make it consume more energy, at least not a significant amount. High school seniors may experience mental fatigue (brain drain) after taking a 4-hour SAT test, but they will never lose weight. On the other hand, putting your brain on a training program is good for it.

I don’t want to confuse a brain training program with the “brain games” that are supposed to do things like improve memory or prevent Alzheimer’s. While crossword puzzles, sudoku, or solving word problems may be enjoyable and increase your mental agility for the same tasks, the scientific proof behind such claims is lacking.

However, brain training is “a system of exercising the brain to improve aspects of cognition like memory, attention, focus, and brain speed.”4 Such programs involve scientists and neurology experts in designing them, are subjected to clinical testing, and such results as sustained change and gains that generalize to other cognitive activities or areas are published in peer-reviewed journals. Brain training programs that meet these criteria are few and far between.

Whether you have ET or not, it’s important that you take your brain to the gym, literally and figuratively. Remember that regular, vigorous exercise improves your physical brain as well as your body; and giving your brain a mental workout in the form of a research-backed brain training program also contributes to the health of your mind.

In short, if you think your brain can be even better, you are right. Start working on it today.

1 Mueller K, Jech R, Hoskovcová M,. Olga Ulmanová et al. General and selective brain connectivity alterations in essential tremor: A resting state fMRI study.Neuroimage Clin. 2017; 16: 468–476.
3 Jabr, Ferris. “Does Thinking Really Hard Burn More Calories?” Scientific American, July 18, 2012.

About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Neurosurgery Associates.