What's the hottest fitness craze these days? Read carefully, or you might forget.
It's nothing new that physical exercises are essential for good health, but some companies also want you to believe that workouts for your brain are equally important.
For a monthly fee, Web sites such as www.mybraintrainer.com and www.happy-neuron.com offer online games that promise to help you improve reaction time, increase your attention span and boost your memory.
Studies have shown that working a daily crossword puzzle or similar activity helps keep the brain functioning properly, so, some businesses are taking this concept to the next level, targeting those of the generation accustomed to getting their work done in front of a computer screen or on personal digital assistants.
"We're seeing more baby boomers worry about this, and it's really with good reason," said Bruce Friedman, the president of MyBrainTrainer. "You come into contact with so many people in their late 70s or mid-to late 80s who are at different levels, and you see some who are still really sharp. You may say, 'I sure hope I'm like that guy when I'm old.' Well, this is about taking the steps to get there."
The concept behind www.mybraintrainer.com, which touts itself as a virtual gymnasium for the mind, is largely based on the research of Josh Reynolds, the founder of the research company Cognitive Care Inc. who is better known for inventing the mood ring and the Thigh-Master.
Members have access to exercises that test psychomotor reflexes, cognitive quickness and perceptual acuity. The site, which tracks your progress over time, also offers a 21-day training program and online support from other players.
On www.happy-neuron.com, activities such as 'Private Eye,' 'Pay Attention,' and 'Words, Where Are You?' are intended to challenge different functions, such as critical thinking skills, language skills and attention span. The Web site claims that playing the games will flex your mental muscles and make your "brains sweat."
Last year, Nintendo joined in when it moved beyond its target group of teens and twentysomethings and introduced Brain Age, a game aimed at middle-age adults, intended to "stimulate your brain and give it the workout it needs," according to its Web site. The game is for use on the Nintendo DS, a handheld system that's slightly larger than a cell phone and requires a stylus similar to the ones included with a PDA.
"As a baby boomer, it's like a treadmill for my mind," said George Harrison, Nintendo of America's senior vice president of marketing and corporate communications. "You can play it for 10 minutes or an hour and keep yourself feeling sharp."
In December, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the first definitive study to show that doing mental workouts can slow the aging of the mind. The study provided daily, hourlong cognitive training for 2,802 volunteers over a five-week period, and then tested them annually for five years. Researchers found, those who had gotten the cognitive training, even for such a short period, received long-term benefits and were better able to perform day-to-day tasks such as shopping and cooking.
Just as lunges, squats and sit-ups strengthen the muscles, mental training can keep older minds functioning better, the study concluded.
Shirley Poduslo, a professor of neurology at the Medical College of Georgia, says that although playing games is a great way to help prevent the onset of Alzheimer's or delay its progression, she's skeptical whether these new high-tech, highly specialized games are better for brain fitness than Scrabble, sudoku or other puzzles, which she typically recommends to her patients.
"There is no one magic thing," Dr. Poduslo said. "If there were, we'd all be doing it."
Mr. Friedman, of MyBrainTrainer, said that although he doesn't discourage people from doing other activities, he believes the workouts on MyBrainTrainer are advantageous because they are a lot like doing certain exercises for the muscles of the body.
"If you want to fully develop your abs or your pecs, there's specific exercises which are designed to address that, and the same's true with cognitive exercises," Mr. Friedman said. "We believe we've developed a Nautilus for the mind, with intensive couple-of-minute workouts for the different functions of the brain."
Dr. Poduslo said that anything which works the mind, even playing with grandchildren, can be effective.
"I always end presentations by telling people, 'Don't be a couch potato,'" Dr. Poduslo said. "Anything that makes you think is good, and you can really start at any age. It's important you don't just sit there in front of the TV."