Cross Training the Brain: What Does it Mean and How Do We Do It?

Cross training is both a well-accepted and popular notion in the world of physical fitness. Increasingly, folks are starting to wonder whether the benefits of a cross training approach might not apply to brain training as well. One TBH Coach recently had that very question raised in class by a student who wondered what exactly we mean when we talk about cross training our brains?

There is no question that any effective brain wellness program must include cross training. In fact, the Total Brain Health® blueprint to better brain fitness is uniquely based on the very principles of this training approach.

Why should we cross train our brains? Because the science of brain health demands that we do to fully reap the benefits of brain health interventions. Consider this: When we talk about brain health we are really talking about two different end points. First, we are looking to maintain everyday intellectual function, such as attention, speed of thinking, multi-tasking, and of course memory (all of which are challenged by aging). Second, we seek ways to reduce our risk for serious memory loss and maintain cognitive vitality as we grow older. When we look at the science behind what keeps our minds sharp and our brains healthy, it is abundantly clear that we need to engage in many different activities across multiple areas of well being to promote our brain health. Since cross training is best defined as “training across disciplines,” is a very apt way of describing exactly what we need to do for our brains.

What should we look to cross train in our brain fitness programs? Here are some suggestions you can use in your practice with clients, and even for yourselves:

Train Across Dimensions: Any brain fitness program should first start with a good look at what brain healthy behaviors we can promote across the multiple areas of wellness that contributes to brain health.  At Total Brain Health®, our blueprint covers the Body|Mind|Spirit Continuum of brain health, and asks what we can improve in each of these areas.  Is more aerobic activity called for? Better stress management? While we might not initially conceive of such changes as “brain training,” they are critical to better brain performance and vitality (in fact, the current science behind some of them is stronger than that behind what we might more readily assume address brain training).

Train Across the “Mind” Dimension: Cross training the brain also requires attention to the different ways the science indicates we should engage intellectually. The Total Brain Health® blueprint refers to these as the three “S”s of Brain Health: Skills, Stretch, and Strategies. First, research indicates that targeted training can help us better maintain the intellectual skills we need to function well daily that are challenged by aging and lifestyle. Second, “stretching” our brains with intellectually stimulating activities has been linked to reduced dementia risk over our lifetimes, suggesting that they may have a protective effect. Finally, we need to learn to effectively use strategies to help us acquire and retain information such as names (everyone’s top memory complaint), information we read, or conversations. Since many interventions cannot really address all of these areas, we must cross train across these “S”s with different activities.

Train Across Cognitive Skills: Speaking of those intellectual skills, the research shows that we must train across them as well. Findings from the ACTIVE study as well as other research demonstrate again and again that while we can improve our cognitive skills through training, the improvements seen are specific to the area in which we train. Any solid cognitive training program, whether software based or one that you use in the classroom, must provide a balanced training across all those skills in order for it to truly meet these objectives.

What’s the bottom line? When it comes to better brain health, cross training is everything. It is a core principle of our Total Brain Health® approach, as it is the best way for all of us to put the full weight of the science into actionable steps to promote better brain fitness for our clients and for ourselves.