Fitness professionals have been telling clients to “use it or lose it” for years. Although that well-worn cliché is usually in reference to muscle tone, flexibility or endurance, research shows that it holds true for the brain, too.

Regular exercise, along with brain-stimulating activities such as puzzles, crosswords and some computer-based games, have been shown to positively improve cognitive function and memory. Brain fitness has been a hot topic in the mainstream media and the subject of much research in the past 10 years.

“This isn't new information. It's been known for quite a while, but it hasn't gotten out to the public very much until now,” says Sandra Aamodt, editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience and co-author of the book “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.” “You wouldn't believe the number of researchers who jog or play tennis as a consequence of their research.”

Even though brain fitness is a hot topic these days, only a handful of fitness facility owners are using that to their advantage by promoting the cognitive benefits of exercise. Even fewer are providing brain-related programming or software. Rosemary Lavery, spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, says brain fitness is in the infancy stages within health clubs.

“Most of the brain fitness I have come across has been in conjunction with researchers and scientists, and not necessarily within clubs themselves,” she says.

Clubs may be missing a big opportunity, though. The brain fitness market is estimated to be worth $80 million, and 69 percent of older adults list losing their mental abilities as one of their top fears, according to a recent USA Today/ABC News poll. Five million Americans already suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and that number is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Computer-based brain fitness software companies are booming, and even video game giant Nintendo is having financial success with BrainAge, a brain fitness game that brings a video-game format to adults.

Learning Curve

With 78 million Baby Boomers in the United States, it's smart business for fitness facilities to target this group with programming, experts say.

“There hasn't been as much incentive for businesses to gain financially from promoting physical activity as there has been with nutritional supplements or exercise equipment promoted on television,” Aamodt says. “But [health club operators] are the set of people who have a financial incentive to follow this.”

Brain fitness has become such a hot topic that facilities that focus solely on improving cognitive function have opened.

In December, vibrantBrains opened its doors in San Francisco. The 1,400-square-foot facility includes 20 computer stations and a lounge area with coffee, tea and healthy brain snacks such as walnuts. The lounge area also includes reading materials related to brain health, says Lisa Schoonerman, CEO and co-founder of vibrantBrains.

Memberships to the facility are analogous to fitness centers, she says, and cost about $60 a month with discounts for longer-term memberships. A membership includes unlimited access to the facility's mind-building software along with the opportunity to work one-on-one with a staff member.

“We felt like there was a niche for bringing the concept of brain fitness to the general public,” Schoonerman says. “There are lots of programs through senior centers and retirement centers, but the need to exercise [the brain] begins much sooner.”

The facility targets Baby Boomers. Schoonerman plans to expand to multiple locations, and she is looking to partner with health clubs and yoga studios.

“While the exercises that we offer at vibrantBrains do not involve physical activity,” she says, “we do advise our members that physical exercise along with proper nutrition, sufficient sleep and stress reduction is key to brain health.”

A Fit Mind

Some health clubs are also incorporating the brain fitness trend into their programming. Nifty after Fifty, a franchisor of full-service fitness centers for people 50 and older, offers two types of brain-related software programming for members at its five locations in the Los Angeles area: Brainaerobics and The Virtual Driver.

Brainaerobics is a specialized computer program that provides mental exercises and stimulation through memory exercises, puzzles and games to help improve the ability to retrieve and remember information and improve problem-solving skills. The Virtual Driver is a driving simulation program that helps members sharpen their driving skills by simulating challenging traffic situations such as driving in the rain, on highways and in the dark.

Both software programs have licensing fees but are cost effective for club owners to purchase and offer to members, says Sheldon Zinberg, founder of Nifty after Fifty. Members are not charged separately for the brain-related programs; they are included in the membership costs.

“We at one time believed that once you reached a certain age, your brain was on a downhill path that was irreversible,” he says. “Now, we know that's absolutely incorrect. You can improve your ability to remember with mental and physical exercise. Putting the two together is a one-two punch.”

Stevens Point Area YMCA in Stevens Point, WI, has also tried some brain-related programming. In the beginning of January, the Y hired Pamela Luedtke, certified Brain Gym instructor, to teach two introductory Brain Gym classes as part of the Y's free fitness sampler week. More than 20 people attended the older adult class.

The Brain Gym program is designed to keep the mind in shape and connected through educational kinesiology or learning through movement.

“It's not meditation. It's not a puzzle. Brain Gym is a physical movement that stimulates both hemispheres of the brain,” she says, noting that most people have a dominant side of the brain. “The goal is to be able to access the whole brain in any activity that we do.”

The Brain Gym certification took Luedtke, an associate lecturer in theatre and dance at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), more than two years to complete and was funded by a $2,500 grant from the UWSP Personnel Development Committee.

Because of the Y class' strong attendance, the Y plans to add a regular or multiple-session Brain Gym class, Luedtke says. She says the Y will probably charge a small fee for the class, such as $10 for three sessions for members and $20 for three sessions for non-members. She may soon instruct a class for a local Pilates studio as well.

Mind Over Matter

Not everyone is sold on the brain training trend. Sandy Coffman, president of Programming For Profit, a training and consulting firm in Bradenton, FL, for health club owners and operators, isn't ready to recommend that clubs invest in brain health software or programming. Although brain health is important, she says clubs should focus on what they know.

“It is an overwhelming fact that the majority of our wellness issue is the lack of fitness, movement and activity,” she says. “That's what [health clubs] are programmed to do best.”

A wait-and-see approach can be good, Aamodt says, noting that few large studies have been done on computer-based software programs.

“I certainly don't think [computer-based software programs] hurt anyone, except maybe your wallet,” she says. “They need to do a lot more systematic study before I would be convinced that they provide a systematic advantage.”

Of the smaller studies that have been completed, most computer-based brain fitness programs don't offer brain benefits that are better than exercise's brain benefits, Aamodt says. One recent study from a brain-training software manufacturer cited faster processing speeds and better memory recall after a group of 468 adults ages 65 and older received an hour of brain training for eight to 10 weeks, compared with a similar group that had no training. Ninety days after the study, cognitive gains still held up, researchers noted.

However, a four-year study published in the journal Neurology found that people 65 and older who regularly walk and get other forms of moderate exercise lower their risk of dementia. Study participants who exerted the most energy walking were 27 percent less likely to develop vascular dementia than those who walked the least amount. Also, people who scored in the top third for total physical activity lowered their risk by 24 percent, compared to those in the bottom third.

A March 2007 study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences went even further by pinpointing what exercise does within the brain. Researchers found that moderate exercise targets a region within the hippocampus known as the dentate gyrus. This area is responsible for normal age-related memory decline that begins around the age of 30 for most adults. After a workout, researchers found that the dentate gyrus actually increases the growth of new neurons, thereby improving cognition and reducing normal memory loss.

“There's no question that physical exercise, if done consistently over the years, does substantially protect your brain against normal aging,” Aamodt says. “You might be missing an opportunity with some parts of the population if you fail to use that in your marketing.”

Although reviews are mixed about whether computer-based brain fitness programs are worth the investment, experts agree that an emphasis on improving brain health through exercise may help clubs target the hard-to-reach deconditioned market.

“Even though we are learning more about the beneficial effects of exercise and the effects of exercise on the brain, the population as a whole is remaining sedentary,” says Benjamin Greenwood, research associate at the University of Colorado's department of integrative physiology and the Center for Neuroscience. “Promoting the beneficial effects of exercise is an essential first step to getting people off the couch.”

Aamodt suggests that clubs create separate classes for mental exercise. A separate space and being surrounded by other like-minded participants can increase people's motivation and comfort level.

“Brain health is a very significant and societally important benefit of exercise,” Aamodt says. “If you're selling exercise, you might as well sell it on the basis of what it really is good for.”

Brain Health Workout Ideas

To challenge your members' ability to learn and process information quickly while exploring new topic areas that require judgment and decision making, use the following tools and tips from the International Council on Active Aging:

  • Book of the month club

    Host a book of the month club in your aerobic studio or office during your down time. Invite members and non-members to meet every month to discuss a book that they have all read during the month. These sessions could be led by volunteers and can help keep your older clients' minds active while giving them the opportunity to socialize.

  • Question and answer

    Have your personal trainers challenge your older clients' memories with fun fit tips and questions, such as, “What muscle is this exercise working?” or “How do you set up and use this piece of equipment?” These may seem like elementary questions, but these questions will let you know if your older client is paying attention and if they are able to recall the information.

  • Mind games

    Place a health or fitness crossword puzzle in your monthly newsletter and offer prizes for completing it.

  • Educational lectures

    Host monthly talks that help members learn new things and have new experiences.

  • Getting connected

    What better way to keep the mind working — and people connected — than offering computer labs at your fitness center? Work with a local computer store to supply computers and with local schools to have teens come in and mentor your older members on the use of the computer during your down time.

  • Travel fare

    Work with your local travel agent to offer trips to other countries. Prior to the trip, offer language classes.

  • Debate club

    Create a debate club where older adults can chat and debate with others who share similar or opposing points of view.

  • Art class

    Offer art classes to stimulate creativity and memory recall.

  • Autobiography club

    This is a book-writing club where older adults can create the story of their lives for future generations to read and learn from.

Source: International Council on Active Aging

How Does Exercise Help the Brain?

  • Improves concentration and attention

    Brain imaging studies show that highly fit older adults have faster reaction times — an indication of better concentration — than their less fit counterparts. They also are better able to focus on relevant information and ignore irrelevant cues, indicating better attention.

  • Reduces gray-matter loss

    Highly fit people also show less of a decrease in gray matter in the cortex than is normally seen with aging, which may suggest a protective effect of exercise against nerve cell death. This effect is most pronounced in areas of the brain involved in executive cognition that typically decline with aging.

  • Promotes neurogenesis

    Neurogenesis is the production of new nerve cells as a result of neuronal cell division. Laboratory animals that are allowed to voluntarily run on an exercise wheel show increases in the generation and survival of new neurons (brain cells) in the hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in short-term memory). This increased neurogenesis is associated with improved learning.

  • Strengthens synapses

    In animals, running also increases the strength of synaptic connections. This occurs through the same molecular mechanism that is believed to underlie long-term memory formation.

  • Changes gene patterns

    Exercise induces changes in the expression patterns of a wide array of genes, with some becoming more active and some showing less activity. Many of the genes that become more active are known to play roles in the structure and adaptability of synapses, suggesting a direct role for exercise in synapse density.

  • Increases growth factors

    Growth factors are molecules that promote the health of specific cells and are produced by cells other than the ones they nourish. Nerve growth factors play vital roles in nourishing and supporting nerve cells. A growth factor called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) increases significantly in the brains of animals that run voluntarily. Separate studies show that when people with depression exercise in addition to taking antidepressants, their BDNF levels increase and their depression symptoms decrease.

  • Enhances blood flow

    Exercise also increases the density and size of brain capillaries, which increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain. This may in turn help support the survival of new neurons and facilitate faster firing by neurons.

Source: The AARP