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Cerebral Cardio: Do Brain Gyms Really Work?

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Current FDA exercise recommendations advise Americans to get sixty to ninety minutes of activity every day for weight maintenance, though they don’t specify the amount of exercise required daily to improve concentration and focus, memory, and even personal relationships. (And by “improving personal relationships,” I don’t just mean impressing your boyfriend with your newly toned stomach; I’m talking about strengthening your emotional bonds.) According to experts in kinesiology, the study of human movement, physical movements positively affect minds as well as waistlines. But what kind of movements work the brain, and how does one begin such an exercise routine? Should Americans be hitting the “brain gym,” too?


Missed a Spot, or Not?
The most important muscle in our bodies, according to kinesiologists, is not a muscle; it’s the brain. Toning our cores, legs, and arms is just not enough for a full-body workout, they argue, if the mind doesn’t get stronger, too. But how to incorporate brain exercises into a fitness regime, and is it even worthwhile to do so?


According to Keith J. Hyatt, who contributed the article “Brain Gyms Building Stronger Brains or Wishful Thinking?” to the 2007 issue of Remedial and Special Education, brain gyms help individuals of all ages improve their cognition and mental performance through a combination of physical activities like “crawling, drawing, tracing symbols in the air, yawning, and drinking water.” Yawning is exercise! For those of you who can’t suppress a show of boredom during long meetings, just cite Hyatt and tell your boss that you’re working out.


What makes such simple, everyday actions “exercise”? And why would anyone need a trainer for yawning? Hyatt, an avowed skeptic of the brain-gym concept, argues that they’re not and you don’t.


Exercises in Futility
That brain gyms might be more sales tactic than science is both good news and bad news. Most Americans already know they need to spend up to an hour and a half exercising every day; they’d probably rather spend the rest of their time advancing their careers, raising their families, and watching reality TV than working out even more. (That last set of yawns is a killer.) But the promise of improved mental performance without lifting a finger (literally) can be truly seductive.


Hyatt specifically criticizes the trademarked Brain Gym company, which has turned kinesiology into a business model and sells courses teaching its twenty-six Brain Gym movements. Hyatt doesn’t attempt to discredit the entire field of kinesiology in his writing; rather, he argues that the research of Brain Gym’s founders, educator and reading specialist Paul E. Dennison and his wife-colleague, Gail, is thin and inaccurate. Hyatt isn’t the only one looking askance at the company, either; Steven P. Novella, a clinical neurologist and director of general neurology at Yale University of Medicine, and John T. Bruer, a writer serving on the National Science Board, reveal similar views in their writing.


The consensus among Hyatt and his peers is that Brain Gym’s research is inadequate, consisting of only a few studies, one of which included only four participants. (Actually, four is generous—one of those subjects was the study’s author himself.) He also questions the validity of three pro–Brain Gym papers because the authors paid for their publication. Hyatt disregards yet another of these studies for its methodology (or lack thereof), arguing that the author failed to provide an accurate and reasonable measure of the Brain Gym activity (listening to Mozart). His criticism of this particular article raises the question at hand: what is the appropriate measure for a fit brain? The answer is nowhere as quantifiable as the size of your jeans.


“The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky”
Emily Dickinson was more than a century ahead of Hyatt and his colleagues in terms of her theory regarding brainpower quantification: we simply don’t know exactly how vast our cerebral capacities are. Of course, we know much more about the brain these days than Dickinson’s contemporaries did, because countless neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and biologists have poked it and probed it for answers. But even with MRIs and CAT scans, politicians and school officials can’t agree on an accurate and objective measure of knowledge and, most important, learning. And while there are many plausible theories about how the human brain acquires knowledge and how to best facilitate learning in students of all ages, researchers remain in pursuit of a conclusive, all-encompassing explanation of the learning process.


Researchers with advanced degrees from the world’s best scientific and medical institutions work for ways to improve learning and cognition every day. If yawning or tracing symbols in the air were the key to universal aptitude, they would probably have figured that out already.


Any one of these researchers would probably advise a potential brain gym rat to save her money and time and read the newspaper, solve a crossword puzzle, socialize, and exercise regularly (yawning doesn’t count!). An expert’s brain-fitness regimen would include diet recommendations, too. “Brain foods” like wild salmon, chocolate, blueberries, green tea, and coffee have all been linked to mental focus and may ward off dementia later in life, according to several published studies.


No Need to Hit the Gym
The idea for brain gyms is not altogether bad. Despite what Hyatt says, there’s enough research out there to suggest that if you exercise and listen to classical music, you have a better chance of being a happier, and even a smarter, person. But we don’t yet have enough proof of a cause-and-effect relationship between these activities and intelligence, or even how to gauge brain health among individuals. Instead of spending money and time on those twenty-six miracle movements, Hyatt and his colleagues suggest, we’d be better off simply taking care of our general health and trust that our brains will benefit along with our bodies.



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