Exercising Body and Brain at the Same Time (and the wonders of Jeopardy!)


I’m getting old.  I qualify for AARP.  Yet I feel better than I did in my 30s.  Physical exercise improves overall health and slows the physiologic declines that come with aging.  Exercising the mind too can prevent age-related mental decline, even stave off dementia.*

For many--myself included--regular exercise for the sake of health is hard to do.  It takes will-power.  I run 4-5 days a week.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to get out the door for a run.  For motivation, I’ll set a short-term goal and aim for a race, such as a 5k, 10k or ½ marathon.  I log training mileage and times in a journal and record race times (including mile splits) in spreadsheets.  This forms the discipline.  I’ve been running for so many years that it’s become a no-brainer, a regular habit that I cannot break, no matter where I am and whether I’ve got a planned race or not.

Weight-training several times a week helps to build a sound musculoskeletal system.  This too requires a force of will to get to the garage for 40-50 minutes of weight-lifting, especially when it’s hot or cold.  To monitor progress, which drives motivation, I record the number of reps for each weight in the same journal.  I’ve been using journals since high school, and having graduated decades ago, well, that makes for a lot of journals.  Though I can’t lift as much as I could eons ago (bench-press 275 pounds at body weight of 155) I’ve set new goals as I’ve aged. 

I’ve run and weight-trained multiple times a week, though lapses both short (1-2 weeks) and long (a month or more) unexpectedly arose--the short ones from the demands of work or some other event, the longer ones due to injury (often from overambition or stupidity).

So how do you exercise the brain?  As with most things, I stick to time-honored methods: read and study, and not just medical topics.

Study?  By God, am I crazy?  Well, it all depends.

After all those years in college, med school and residency, you’d think one would’ve tired from all that book-learnin,’ and so, yeah, it is crazy.

On the other hand, it really shakes things up and adds a bit of excitement to life, if you consider knowledge exciting.  I learn or retained the things I should’ve learned or retained before, like history and geography and literature and opera and Shakespeare. 

Yes, I’m reading Shakespeare and learned to like it.  I’ve also committed to memory: the capitals of all the world nations (which changes from time to time, depending on who’s rebelling); the capitals and nicknames of all the United States; all the U.S presidents and their years in office; every English monarch from William the Conqueror in 1066 to the present, and numerous other items.

This sounds like work, and it is.  But work that’s entirely different from my job as a doctor is exciting and rejuvenating.  It allows the mind to venture into different territory, often reinforces what you already know and helps keeps things fresh and alive.  I’ve created charts such as historic timelines, mythical gods and heroes, famous operas, musicals and plays, studied timelines for U.S. and world history, wrote a short synopsis of the Bible, studied sciences, sports, music history, art, astronomy, other religions, and on and on.  The study aids have become creative.  Creativity and new knowledge are novel, and novelty is stimulating.

One of my methods is to study while weight training.

A session of weight training (weight-lifting) takes at least 30 minutes, done in short high intensity sets, with a longer intervening rest period.  I try to minimize the down-time between each set, but recovery is necessary, otherwise you’d hurt yourself.  So what to do in between?

Why, study, of course.  I’ll bring my binder with maps, astronomy charts, history timelines, etc, to the garage where I keep the weights.  I’ve also created flashcards for certain broad topics and  keep these in a small box by the weights.  These cards include such items as: every world nation, all the states in the union, U.S. presidents, characters in Greek mythology, famous authors.  On one side is the name (of the country, state, president, author or Greek god, etc.) and on the flip side, bits of key information. 

Sample format for creating flash cards, prior to cutting

I’ll then randomly pull out 5-8 cards between reps and quiz myself.  At times I’ll write additional facts, tid-bits of info to the flashcard, and reprint them now and then.  It keeps the exercise session alive, spices it up and prevents boredom.  Sure, I could listen to music or a podcast of whatever.  But this is active learning--it forces me to think, rack my brain and answer a question, rather than passively reading or listening.  It’s also another motivator to get me to the garage and do the weight-lifting.  So now I’ll have more than one purpose for the exercise.

Here’s my simple-minded Body-Brain Exercise Connection chart:





Exercise type

Metabolic Action

Time Interval

Brain Activity



Slow-twitch muscle conditioning

Long durations of constant activity


Conducive to meditation



Fast-twitch muscle building

Short repetitions of intense activity


Conducive to study and memorization

This is my yin-and-yang approach to physical and cognitive activity.  Heck, most everything we do is binary: ones and zeroes, yeses and nos, dos and don’ts.  There’s dualism everywhere, so why not with exercise?  Of course, you can substitute running and weight training to something more to your liking, such as liters of beer consumed in under a minute or the number of laps your spouse can chase you with a frying pan. 

One can measure progress with exercise regimens—the maximum amount of weight lifted, the number of reps at a given weight, the time taken to run x number of miles, etc.  How can you measure mental progress and how does that provide motivation?   In school, this was typically done with midterm and final exams.  But who in their right mind wants to go through that pain again?

You see, one of my dreams is to be a contestant on Jeopardy!, the game show.  You might’ve seen this before, where the host presents material in the form of an answer, and the contestant responds in the form of a question before the other two opponents.  Simple enough. But the variety of topics is vast and the detail enormous—those writers for Jeopardy! will use anything and everything.

Geography, history, art, science, literature, math, sports, music, pop culture, mixed drinks, famous dogs and not uncommonly, Shakespeare—you name it, they’ll use it.

So I’ve been studying it all. 

I’ve watched Jeopardy! almost nightly for the last 2 ½ years.  I’ve recorded the number of responses I answered correctly into a spreadsheet, which to-date has become quite long (over 500 rows, one row for each day).  From the spreadsheet, I can calculate stats such as a rolling averages of total correct responses, the percentage of Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy correct responses, etc.  The averages continually rise.  Playing each game is my short-term goal.  Getting onto the show is the long-term goal.  Both serve as motivation.

Yet, I may never make it as a contestant on Jeopardy!  There’s about a 0.4 % chance (400 out of 100,000 applicants) of ever being chosen—and that’s after you’ve taken the online test and passed with over 70% correct (and you’re only allowed to take the test once a year). 

But the learning process itself is its own reward.  There’s great power in knowledge for its own sake.  And it’s available to everyone; therein lies the beauty of this process.  In this day-and-age of ubiquitous electronic gadgets and search engines (we won’t get into AI), there are little barriers and no excuses not to learn.  Information is there for the taking.  Seize it.  You don’t need a degree from a fancy university or possess a high I.Q. (mine was below average, as I recall from my testing in elementary school). 

I may never be a Jeopardy! contestant.  But the experience of learning, even relearning things I’ve long ago forgotten, has opened up a whole new world.  And as you learn more, your universe miraculously expands and becomes a far more interesting place.  Exercising the brain while exercising is actually fun, and after 40-50 minutes of weight-lifting, I feel both buff and brainy.

So there you have it.  It’s simple, easy to implement.  If it works for a simple-minded guy like me, it’ll work for you.  As Rocky Balboa said, “Go for it!”

©Randall S. Fong, M.D.


*for a great read, check Cognitive Fitness by Gilky and Kitts, Harvard Business Review, Nov 2007)


For more topics on medicine, health and the weirdness of life in general, check out the rest of the blog site at  randallfong.blogspot.com