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Brain excercise, or mind games?

Gary Palmer taking test as his trainer, Chasity McMilian, tries to confuse him.
Gary Palmer taking test as his trainer, Chasity McMilian, tries to confuse him.

We hear a lot about the importance of physical fitness these days as the country looks to reduce its obesity rate. But there's another fitness craze underway that focuses on the brain. While the merits of physical training are well-documented, the benefits of "brain training" aren't as clear. WFAE's Greg Collard explains. Gary Palmer is a construction contractor. He and his wife started their business, Palmer Custom Builders, in 1985. They've enjoyed the fruits of the boom times. But, as you've probably figured out already, it's been a bit slow lately. "We said we need to raise the bar. We need to be better at our game. So we took this as an opportunity to improve." Palmer signed up for a 24 week program at Learning RX in South Charlotte , one of about 50 franchises in the country. Three days a week, Palmer goes through 90-minute sessions that being at 7 a.m. The cost: About $8,700. "I wanted to get better at my game so I can survive in this economy and improve our company." Watch a video of Palmer taking one of these tests. Chasity McMillian is Gary's trainer. She constantly tries to confuse Gary as he works math problems and puzzles, searches for different number combinations, and even recites every American president. A metronome often plays as McMillian claps and shouts out different numbers - anything to distract Palmer. It's all an effort to help Gary focus, or "hyper-focus" in the brain-training jargon. He says that's important in his line of work. He does a lot of technical reading - things like contracts, building proposals and regulations. Gary says it can all get frustrating for a slow reader like himself, but now he's reading faster. "It actually improves you. You think faster on your feet," Palmer says. There are different aspects of the brain-training industry. There are businesses like Learning Rx that take customers through customized programs. And there's software that takes users through exercises that are supposed to improve things like memory or attention span. Some of these programs are used at home. Brain Age for Nintendo DS is a popular one. There are also computer labs, sometimes called "brain gyms." Instead of hitting the treadmill, you sit down at a computer and challenge your brain. "There's a huge market for it," says Danny George of Penn State University. He studies brain health at Penn State's medical humanities department. "I mean all of us have aging brains. All of us have concerns about memory loss, and the way that these products are being branded and marketed - I hate to say leverages that anxiety, but that's essentially what does happen," George says. That's not to say that brain-training programs don't work, but he says there's not enough research to justify the hype these products receive, or the big bucks that customers spend. And George says customers should consider the activities they might sacrifice to afford or have the time for brain training - things like museums, concerts or travel. "I'm a big believer in life-long learning. To me, that's a much more helpful concept where you're interested and curious in learning new things and in forging new neuronal connections," George says. The brain-training industry group Sharp Brains estimates that just the software side of the industry jumped from a $100 million business in 2005 to $265 million in 2008, the most recent year figures are available. They've created so much buzz in Europe that the BBC commissioned a scientific study of brain-training games. The results, released this week in the journal Nature, found that participants improved at the games, but not in everyday tasks. "This evidence could change the way we look at brain training games and shows staying active by taking a walk, for example, is a better use of our time," Clive Ballard, the research director of Britain's Alzheimer's Society, told the BBC. At Learning Rx, owner and speech language pathologist Vicki Parker says students sign up for 12 to 32 weeks of training. Many are kids diagnosed with learning disabilities. That's why Parker signed her daughter up for courses in 2006. Parker was so impressed with the results, she bought the franchise. "Everyone can have a better brain," she says. "The more you do good things for the brain, the better the brain will be." That includes exercise and a healthy diet. Crosswords are also good, Parker says, "but you need to increase the challenge level." At Learning Rx, that costs $75 to $95 an hour. But the cost doesn't concern Palmer, the construction contractor. He's convinced the money he spent is an investment in his business that will pay off when the economy picks up.