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    Articles | Mental Health

    Brain Health: Use it or lose it

    By Tim Stevenson

    We’ve talked a lot recently about the concept of a physical pension and the fact that how you choose to move now will directly impact how you are able to move during the latter years of your life.

    This conversation is not just about muscles and bones though. It is vitally important that we consider your brain as well because the entire human body is governed by one simple principle.

    Use it or lose it.

    In the context of your brain health, if you stop using that miraculous supercomputer in your head, it will gradually deteriorate.

    A story about a beautiful brain

    Whilst working as a scuba diving instructor in Australia I was asked to spend some time teaching a gentleman named Sam.

    Sam had been gifted a series of diving lessons by his family for his 80th birthday. The previous year they had bought him a skydiving experience.

    Sam was full of life. At his first lesson, he told me he didn’t need to borrow a wetsuit because he had his own. I naively smirked to myself thinking, ‘oh this will be good’, expecting him to trot out of the changing room wearing something offensively bright and fashioned in the 1970’s.

    I was wrong. Sam emerged a few minutes later looking like a complete don in a sleek, all-black Rip Curl wetsuit. For the next 2 hours Sam charged into his lesson with the enthusiasm of someone half his age. Yes, he was partially deaf and couldn’t hear my instructions and the regulator (breathing device) kept on falling out of his mouth because you can’t scuba dive in false teeth, but we had a lot of fun together.

    Getting Sam booked in for his next lesson was tricky because he had some shipments arriving from south-east Asia which he needed to deal with for his business.

    Sam was 80 years old but sharp as a tack. It was obvious that his lust for life was keeping his brain very much alive.

    The Power of Plasticity

    The secret to living this type of life, for the rest of our life is that we must never stop challenging our brains and harnessing the gift of neuroplasticity. We have the opportunity every day to change our brains. Over the last 10 years, the emergence of scientific evidence combined with the stories of those who have experienced it has been profound.

    Movement has found itself taking a lead role as a growing body of research shows exercise to be a potent stimulus to improve the brains’ infrastructure by developing and enhancing the neural wiring at a cellular level. A major player in this process is a group of proteins known as ‘factors’ and one, in particular, is especially potent; brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

    When researchers put BDNF on a petri-dish containing neurons they promptly grow new branches. BDNF then is like a neural fertiliser and exercise generates plentiful quantities. Research studies have found it post-training in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning, memories and emotion.

    In conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s we find dying and damaged brain cells. We know however that it is possible for neurons to grow, divide and propagate through a process known as neurogenesis. This is the foundation of neuroplasticity. Scientists have shown that exercise stimulates neurogenesis and BDNF production. In this perfect partnership, we have the creation of new neurons and the fertilizer to help them proliferate.

    But there is one condition. Exercise must include complex, novel tasks that require co-ordination and skill acquisition. The stimulus must prompt the need to learn and therefore it cannot be achieved through something we already have mastery of.

    Due to the challenges of experimenting on the brains of humans, neuroscientist William Greenough set up an experiment that compared running rats with a group that was set tasks on balance beams and unstable objects. After 2 weeks the rats faced with complex motor skill challenges showed a 35% increase in BDNF compared to the control group that just ran. That is a big difference in brain fertilizer.

    Never stop learning

    Neuroplasticity is not hard to come by, it simply requires intentional effort and an open mind.

    Find something that excites you that can’t do and learn how.

    It doesn’t matter how good you are going to be at it. That is largely irrelevant if you are having fun (something else your brain absolutely loves!).

    If you want to get started with some hand balancing, why not try these Frogstand progressions.

    Don’t do it alone

    The process of learning something new can be intimidating and scary and this is often a big barrier for people getting started. What if I can’t do it? What if I fail? What if I look silly?

    These concerns can all be negated by working with a coach who is on your side. They will also be diminished by surrounding yourself with a community of like-minded people.

    Calisthenics offers a rich opportunity based on progressive and continual opportunities to learn to move in new ways. The never-ending skill acquisition process will stimulate new neural circuitry to stave off degenerative mental illness in addition to stimulating aerobic training intensity.

    If you would like some help getting started or have been training for some time but want to progress and continue to learn new higher-level skills then drop us an email: reception@schoolofcalisthenics.com

    I’ll sign off with this last thought: Be more like Sam.

     

    Tim