Instructor Patricia Izzi, center, looks over her materials as Carol Putnam, left, Florence Mills and Mary Jane Clabots do an exercise. The key is to get brains working in a new way, Izzi says.


GREEN VALLEY - At first glance, brain aerobics may look like idle fun, but it's far from mere child's play.

The activity has gained international acceptance as a method for maintaining mental function by using word games, simple math problems, puzzles and other brainteasers that many people would remember from their childhoods.

"It's really beneficial for people who are getting older to do any cognitive exercise," says Claudia Freund, a native of Germany who has a doctorate in psychology from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, as well as experience as activity director at some Green Valley-area retirement communities.

"These activities that are taught at communities - like word games or any type of mental games - are certainly good for the mind."

Holistic health practitioner Patricia Izzi has seen the benefits firsthand. Izzi, who teaches the activity at La Posada and for Green Valley Recreation, says the key to the activity's effectiveness is to get brains working in a new way.

"The best way to get neurons firing is by doing something different," she says. "We get so used to doing the same things, it's like ruts in the snow."

Geriatric psychiatrist Gary Small of the UCLA Longevity Center notes the brain's ability to adapt, and says promoting its health bears some similarities to other areas of the body.

"The existing research is suggestive that these activities strengthen brain cells. It's like physical fitness. It can make neurons more efficient and build up strength," the author of "The Alzheimer's Prevention Program" says.

Maintaining that cerebral vitality is extra-challenging for people later in life, says Izzi.

"Unless they choose to keep their minds active by joining a group that's politically or artistically oriented, they're probably doing less deductive reasoning and have less neuronal activity," she says. "So they need to find something to keep their neurons firing."

That's where a well-designed brain aerobics class can come in, says La Posada resident and class participant Joycelyn Bash.

"We had a book with little math problems and identifying colors and things," the 80-year-old native of Escanaba, Mich., says. "When you first started, you weren't as quick with it. Then as time went by, you saw how you improved."

Izzi says she learned from Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, a Japanese neuroscientist, "that doing 15 minutes a day of simple math is one of the best things you can do."

The Japanese researcher also has some unsettling news for people who love to camp out in front of the boob tube. "He proved that when you're watching television, the neurons fire at the same rate as if you were sleeping," Izzi says. "No matter what you're watching - 'Jeopardy' or any other educational show. Your neurons are basically sitting there, just like you are."

Keeping the classes dynamic and interactive is important, Freund says.

"Silliness and humor are very important," she says. "You need that fun and energy to help motivate people to get the maximum benefit."

Small believes striking a good balance between levity and seriousness is crucial.

"You want to train, but not strain," he says. "You don't want to make it too stressful, but it also can't be too boring or unchallenging."

Bash is happy that the classes are "not a deal where you get a grade or have to do it right."

That philosophy of treating the classes like a journey instead of a destination is exactly what Izzi seeks to foster in her sessions.

"It's not whether the final answers to the puzzles or the questions are right," the native Rhode Islander says. "It's the thought process of looking for the answers that provides the stimulation we want."

That energized feeling can get people hooked. Just ask Green Valley Recreation member Sue Kmiec, who took Izzi's classes last year.

"I'm kind of addicted to puzzles now," she says. "I'd rather do puzzles than housework, that's for sure."