Which is better for brain functionality? Puzzles or Exercise?

10 mins read

As someone who is actively looking into self-improvement, I have always been interested in how I could maximize my cognitive performance. Some research papers and clever marketing have led me to believe mental exercises such as brain games and sudoku puzzles have such benefits (Ferreira et al., 2014).

Sudoku puzzles are great for utilising working memory, although how much it plays in improving it is still unknown (Grabbe, 2011). Brain games host a wide range of benefits as their advertisers would suggest, stemming from increasing attention, processing speed, language, logic, math and focus (Lumosity, 2018).

So What Is The Truth?

However, in my interview with neuroscientist Michael John-Bristow, he made it clear that many of those claims were misleading and oversold. In fact, brands like Lumosity have settled 

For USD2 million for being deceptive (Federal Trade Commission, 2016). Santa will not be bearing gifts for such naughties! Furthermore, very little high-level evidence exists for either sudoku or brain games and the ones that do, suggest as much benefit to current cognitive abilities or transfer (Boot and Kramer, 2014).

This means that where there is domain-specific (e.g. working memory) activation during the games, the activation did not necessarily lead to improvement in general brain function nor increased such specific abilities. Practicing sudoku just made you better at sudoku.

Furthermore, better methodologies are required in making any conclusions concrete as placebo, enthusiasm/effort, expertise and experience can all play a role in influencing these results. 

How Now Brown Cow?

What then, can improve the functions of our brains? According to Michael John-Bristow, the answer is in moving our bodies; specifically, via aerobic exercises (e.g. running, swimming, cycling, etc..). Why?

Because new capillaries will form in our brains which enable more blood, oxygen and nutrients to flow in a process known as angiogenesis. Michael compares this to electricity power planning. In low-power mode, your computer attempts to save power by reducing the CPU’s speed all the time and lowering screen brightness, among other similar settings.

By adding electricity and choosing high-performance mode, brightness and processing speed increases. Thus, with exercise, your brain would be able to execute functions faster and more effectively. I appreciate the deep irony whereby to improve mentally, one must become physical.

From a naturalistic point-of-view, this makes perfect sense. Humans were born to receive (stimulation). Our structures by way of central nervous systems as explained by Burnham (1917) prove this, and what better way to learn about the environment through movement?

Without wings nor thrust, we are unable to travel the heights or explore the seas like we used to. Through evolution we have lost gills, tails, speed, strength and thrust; in exchange for gaining massive amounts of intelligence as discovered by Flynn in 1984 and confirmed through Trahan et al. (2014).

Our brain power has then given us the ability to overcome our physical limitations to create technologies that allow us to fly faster than the best birds, swim quicker than the fastest fish, and run swifter than the cheekiest cheetah. For longer too.

This has allowed us to cover the most ground, air and sea than any life form on Earth for study. Besides the deep depths of the oceans, the galaxy remains a mystery that has the greatest potential for our minds to explore (Moskowitz, 2011).

The Answers Lies In Our Stars

Astronauts have to pass fitness tests which see them use several hour-long training routines wearing a 300-pound suit. Even after they pass, they are required to exercise for a minimum of 2 hours daily in their spaceship gym!

This is because space environments create osteoporotic environments for the body. The lack of weight-bearing means less stress is placed onto your bones which means your muscles go to waste from reduced usage and your heart becomes lazier as blood flows upwards better in space.

Even with strenuous training, it is found that you could lose 1% of bone density PER MONTH, the same loss an elderly person faces PER YEAR on Earth (CSA, 2013). Abrahamsen, Osmond and Cooper (2015) found that after 10 years, men’s mortality rates shot up to 69.7% in men and 50.2% in women. 10 years of osteoporotic effects on bone density on Earth total up to just 10 months off it.

Although osteoporosis is rarely the direct killer, it serves as a mediator of morbidity which moderates mortality. Age, comorbidities and medical history play a role as well.

On our planet, muscles and bones respond to Wolff’s law which suggests you move it, or you lose it (Frost, 1994). In space, regardless of use, muscles and bones react like Little Red Riding Hood in reverse where she sequentially retreats to poorer-built houses (bone structures) and consequently leaves herself more vulnerable to the ‘wolf’ (death).


Therefore, for our next potential intergalactic evolution and enlightenment, humans who want to be in space have to be fit on Earth. From losing physicality for intelligence, it has come full circle that for more intelligence, we now have to gain physicality. Merry Christmas and a happy new year, readers!


  1. Frost, H.M. (1994). Wolff’s Law and bone’s structural adaptations to mechanical usage: an overview for clinicians. The Angle Orthodontist, [online] 64(3), pp.175–188. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8060014/ [Accessed 25 Dec. 2021].
  2. Quek, N & John-Bristow, M. (2021). The best thing you can do for your brain is physical activity (cardio). [online] www.youtube.com. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI1pHAcZNS0 [Accessed 25 Dec. 2021].
  3. Ferreira, N., Owen, A., Mohan, A., Corbett, A. and Ballard, C. (2014). Associations between cognitively stimulating leisure activities, cognitive function and age-related cognitive decline. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 30(4), pp.422–430.
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  5. Lumosity (2018). Lumosity: Daily Brain Games. [online] Lumosity. Available at: https://www.lumosity.com/en/brain-games/.
  6. Federal Trade Commission (2016). Lumosity to Pay $2 Million to Settle FTC Deceptive Advertising Charges for Its “Brain Training” Program. [online] Federal Trade Commission. Available at: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2016/01/lumosity-pay-2-million-settle-ftc-deceptive-advertising-charges.
  7. Boot, W.R. and Kramer, A.F. (2014). The brain-games conundrum: does cognitive training really sharpen the mind? Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science, [online] 2014, p.15. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4445580/.
  8. Burnham, W.H. (1917). The Significance of Stimulation in the Development of the Nervous System. The American Journal of Psychology, 28(1), p.38.
  9. Flynn, J.R., 1984. The mean IQ of Americans: Massive gains 1932 to 1978. Psychological bulletin95(1), p.29.
  10. Moskowitz, C. (2011). What’s 96 Percent of the Universe Made Of? Astronomers Don’t Know. [online] Space.com. Available at: https://www.space.com/11642-dark-matter-dark-energy-4-percent-universe-panek.html.
  11. Cook, J. and Field, M. (2021). Bezos battles Branson and Musk as race for space heats up. The Telegraph. [online] 9 Jun. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2021/06/09/bezos-battles-branson-musk-race-space-heats/ [Accessed 25 Dec. 2021].
  12. WELT Documentary. (2020). How to become an astronaut? | SPACETIME – SCIENCE SHOW. [online] www.youtube.com. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCnRPwUQ_ug&t=1212s [Accessed 25 Dec. 2021].
  13. CSA (2013). Physical activity in space. [online] asc-csa.gc.ca. Available at: https://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronauts/living-in-space/physical-activity-in-space.asp.
  14. Abrahamsen, B., Osmond, C. and Cooper, C. (2015). Life Expectancy in Patients Treated for Osteoporosis: Observational Cohort Study Using National Danish Prescription Data. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 30(9), pp.1553–1559.

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