Which is better for keeping your mind fit: physical or mental activity?

Physical and mental activities are both important for protecting your thinking skills and warding off dementia. But does one trump the other? It’s an interesting question, one that occurs to me when I’m doing a crossword puzzle or cruising through my neighborhood with the funny-looking walk that my kids make fun of. Can I preserve my thinking skills if I do more of one activity than the other, such as more crossword puzzles or more walking?

I posed the question to Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School. As I write in the April issue of the Harvard Health Letter, he said it was a difficult question to answer because few solid studies have addressed it.

That may be changing. A study published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine tried to tease out whether physical or mental activity was better for brain health. Researchers recruited 126 older adults who felt that their memory or thinking skills had recently gotten worse, and divided them into four groups. All were asked to do an hour of mental activity three times a week and an hour of physical activity three times a week. What differed were the intensities of these activities:

  • intensive computer work plus aerobics
  • intensive computer work plus light stretching and toning
  • watching educational DVDs plus aerobics
  • watching educational DVDs plus light stretching and toning

After 12 weeks, scores on thinking tests improved across the board. The big surprise was that there weren’t any real differences in improvement between the groups. The researchers concluded that the amount of activity is more important for stimulating the brain than the type of activity, because all of the participants both exercised and engaged in mental activities each week.

Benefits from both

There’s some evidence that exercise alone protects the brain. One study of people in their seventies published in Neurology showed that those who exercised the most had the least brain shrinkage and fewer white matter brain lesions, which can be signs of dementia. People who engaged in mental activities had more brain shrinkage and white matter brain lesions. Another study published recently in Stroke showed that older adults who exercised regularly reduced their risk of vascular-related dementia by 40%.

It’s likely that regular exercise can increase the volume of brain regions important for memory and thinking. “There are a number of possible mechanisms for this,” says Dr. McGinnis, “such as stimulating production of growth factors, blood vessels, and new brain cells, which may provide a buffer against brain changes that cause dementia.”

Mental activity alone can also protect the brain. In one 2012 study, published in Neurology, researchers demonstrated a direct link between the amount of cognitive activity, such as reading the newspaper or playing chess, and the level of cognitive function in the following year. As I wrote in the August 2012 Harvard Health Letter, another study found that engaging in meaningful activities such as volunteering or a treasured hobby promotes cognitive health in old age.

“Exercising a specific cognitive function will improve that function. If one engages in tasks requiring working memory, such as holding and manipulating material in the mind for short periods of time, one will usually become stronger in that area,” says Dr. McGinnis.

What you can do

Take advantage of the brain protection that both physical and mental activities provide. On the physical side, start or keep moving. A good goal is 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, but any activity is better than none. On the mental side, Dr. McGinnis suggests doing something you already enjoy. “It might be crossword puzzles, reading, participating in a club, building models, or any number of activities. The guiding principle is that the activities require active engagement, not passive engagement such as watching television.”

Me? I’ll stick to my funny-looking walking and crosswords, although I’ve recently become rather obsessed with a Scrabble game on my smartphone. Next question: Can I walk and play Scrabble at the same time? While it might be better for my brain, I don’t need a medical study to give me that answer. It’s spelled N-O!


  1. RoninAthletics

    Both needs. I think the best way is the practice of the some sport or exercise. will keep your body and your mind healthy,

  2. Andrew

    All from the hearth, it make me cry.

  3. Shawn

    Excellent article. I truly believe that a balanced harmony of physical and mental fitness as well as spiritual fitness is necessary. The three factors work together to create and fulfill the potential in humans.

  4. niazi

    Both activity have positive effect on our brains. It led to belives that there would be a study clearly weighing the benfits of phyical activity over mental activity.

  5. Dorothy

    That’s both important in our body and into our life.

    Dorothy Joseph

  6. jacques

    I think both are as equaly important it is keeping the right ballance because human nature help you decide to go for the easy option and if you enjoys both it is fantastic.

  7. Olumide Oluwasegun

    As for me, I will suggest that both kinds of activity are necessary but then the type of results wanted in a particular area will determine the kind of activity that will be given pre-eminence.

  8. doctors in emerson

    Yes It is very controversial to answer regarding the physical and mental fitness. I have gone through the results of the study and it is necessary to appreciate the efforts of the researchers.

  9. Tamara

    This is funny. I was just debating a friend on this topic. I also felt like both exercising mentally and physically were both equally effective.


  10. Song Mastering

    I believe both physical and mental activity have positive effects on our brains. That said I am not the biggest fans of online brain games like Lumosity etc.

    For me physical activity like sport of any kind, coupled with reading and keeping the mind active through maths, statistics, puzzles etc is the way to go for a healthy mind.

    Music is also essential for our peace of mind. Do not underestimate the power that music can bring with regards to mental fitness.

    Phat Mastering team.

  11. Ronin Athletics

    I agree with Heidi. This is a great post. In ours gym the goal of our Fundamentals Program is to build a strong foundation in all 3 phases of combat: Stand up, Clinch and Ground, so that a new student may feel comfortable and acquainted with the techniques and training methodologies that he/she will encounter in MMA training. Through our Fundamentals program the student will familiarize his/herself with each dimension of MMA and begin to develop themselves in areas that come naturally to them (Kickboxing, BJJ, Submission Grappling and Wrestling) and slowly form their individual ‘game’ or MMA fighting style. Specialized classes are then offered to compliment the students training, allowing them focused training in the combat phase they wish to improve.

  12. Olivia Samuels

    Hi, This is such an important subject. I have parents that are in their mid 70s and I can sometimes notice when they are not as alert or remember things as easily as they should. I notice this more if they are unwell. I have since been reading up on the subject of exercising the brain so that I can be a better daughter and help them.

    I think that doing crossword puzzles are a very good for the brain. Learning another language will certainly help. I was so delighted when my mum said she was going to try and learn another language – I have been really encouraging her.

    Our bodies need exercise when it is flabby and our brain is no different. We need to exercise our brain as well to keep this organ functioning in tip top condition.

    I think as we get older we should engage in learning something new whether it be a hobby, like learning to knit or crochet or building a model plane. Learning something new at adult seniors education classes is also beneficial.

    I think the secret is don’t be afraid to use your brain and learning something new. As your brain will become more exercised (like a workout at the gym) and will retain more elasticity and memory power the more you use it.

    All the best,

  13. Tabitha

    Hello, while I enjoyed reading the article and agree that both physical and mental activity is important the title of the article is confusing. It led me to believe that there would be a study clearly weighing the benefits of physical activity over mental activity. Did this study have any control groups?

  14. dental hygienist in training

    Wow, this really opens up the ye to the whole mind over matter thing. I would have thought that exercising mentally would be better than physical activity for brain shrinkage.


  15. krisie

    i like to switch mental exercise with physical while not overdoing them. i’m a student and i spend most of my time in the library and i get so brain-drained at some point that i usually go for a 15-minute walk or a short session in the gym. That way i am productive the whole day without being too tired – mentally or physically!

    so keep moving and dont stop exercising your brain!

  16. engelia soei

    not only a physical exercise, you need to pick a right food to shed more unhealthy fat.

  17. rat poison

    I think it would be best to do the same physical and mental fitness.

  18. Ahmad

    Barka da yau(greetings in Hausa)I really enjoy your articles and derive a lot of value in taking care of myself employing suggestions therein. My problem is not being able to purchase any of the books prescribed such as those on exercises,feeding and strength and power training.However,I make do with the little you offer in the blogs.Thanks. Nagode.

  19. Edith Steinberg

    I was happy to meet all the nice people who contribute to our better health. I will be 93 in August, live alone for the last 14 years, my husband died in 1998. He too would have loved your newsletter.
    I am reasonably healthy, have no major problems. Your information is of value to me sometime. Thank you for making our lives better.

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