Sunday, March 29, 2009

Brain Training

When we think exercise, whether that be aerobic or strength training, we usually think of our heart or skeletal muscles. It is pretty well established that we can significantly improve the function of these tissues with exercise training. However, the brain is dramatically affected by exercise. Like most scientific study, the brain is the last organ to be understood and the effects of exercise training on the brain are just now being uncovered.

The brain is always rewiring. From the day you are born, the brain's neuroplasticity follows the same 'use it or loss it' mantra as the rest of the body. Areas of the brain, especially those involved in learning and laying down memories can atrophy, die off, or decrease connectivity. In fact, current neuroscience research shows that new neurons are made each day, particularly in the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in learning and memory. These new neurons, though, will die off if they are not recruited. You recruit them by using them to learn something new, especially challenging tasks. This can be viewed as the foundation of motor learning. Having trouble coordinating a new exercise? With practice, it generally improves.

Many adults shy away from any movement they find challenging. They gravitate towards simple motor tasks in fear of failing at the more complex exercises. We all need to be challenged physically and cognitively if we want to improve our brains.

In the past, I made a comment about how I would not recommend using the elliptical trainer. I received a little flack for that comment. But, I still stand by that comment today. My argument, which is supported by current neuroscience, was that you are moving, but you are moving in a fixed, well-known path. You are not giving your brain, joints or muscles much stimulus to improve beyond their familiar daily movements. Sure, you will increase blood flow, oxygen consumption, and Calorie expenditure using an elliptical trainer, but you can get that and more with other non fixed-path movements.

I recommend learning a new sport, kettlebell lifting, trail running, martial arts, Olympic Weightlifting, or gymnastics. Of course, find a qualified and experienced teacher and give yourself time to learn these new movements.

What are your experiences with learning new movements as an adult?

Did you get frustrated and give up or did you stick with it and amaze yourself what you were able to do?


Martin Walker said...

Hello Dan.

This seems so true. I have exercised regularly for the past 33 years, usually swimming and running. But I recently took up yoga and I've found that not only is the practice of yoga challenging, but the complex movements and attention to body and muscle processes has led to big changes in my physique, muscle tone and body awareness.

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Dan Hubbard, M.Ed. said...


Thanks for sharing your experience. I tell runners and cyclists all the time that they will benefit from yoga and strength training to enhance their fitness and performance.