Exercising Our Bodies & Our Brains
The Body Brain Connection
The ideal exercise strategy for well-ageing includes components of strength training, aerobics, balance, and flexibility combined with mental stimulation. We want to shore up the quantity and quality of our body systems: our bones, our skeletal muscles, our nerve cells, circulation and metabolism, because these systems work together to keep us safe from catastrophic falls and broken bones, prevent serious loss of cognition and memory, and maintain our everyday functional and recreational capabilities.
Let’s start with aerobic exercise, which benefits all body systems, having greatest impact on cardiorespiratory fitness and brain health. Yeah, that’s right – cardio for brain health. It turns out what’s good for the heart is good for the brain as well.
Yeah, that’s right, cardio for brain health. It turns out that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain as well.
It no longer makes sense to talk about exercising the body and the brain separately. It was long thought that the nervous system – and that includes the brain – was incapable of self-repair and regeneration. In the mid 1990’s, experimental science established the fact that new neurons are constantly being generated and old neurons are continuously refurbished. In the 2010’s it was demonstrated that this ability exists throughout our lifetimes – even into old age.
…new neurons are constantly being generated and old neurons are continuously refurbished…this ability exists throughout our lifetimes – even into old age.
This discovery was dubbed “neuro-plasticity” and refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life; it allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease, or wear and tear, and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.
The brain compensates for damage by reorganizing and forming new connections between intact neurons. Secondary networks can take over where primary networks have failed. Now here’s the interesting part: neurons reconnect and regenerate best when stimulated through activity. Exercise. Physical and mental. Aerobic or cardio exercise stimulates the secretion of hormones that trigger neurogenesis (new cells) and neuroplasticity (new connections). Where and how those new connections are made depends upon where they are demanded.
Strategically speaking, exercising the brain is similar to exercising skeletal muscles. Consider what happens when you take up a new sport – tennis perhaps. You practice fundamental skills repeatedly, and as a result new muscle cells are created adding to the endurance and strength capacity of existing muscles in your dominant forearm. At the same time, neural connections in your brain and at your neuromuscular junction (where your nerves meet your muscle and the communication occurs) are strengthened and new ones are created to tell your muscles how to make these movement “automatically”.
Learning new things causes the greatest increase in your neural capacity and muscular capacity. Practicing old things has far less impact. Any body builder will tell you that building larger muscles takes new, more frequent, more intense and longer workouts than does maintaining the muscles you already have.
The same is true with your brain. Absent illness or injury, you can maintain cognitive abilities through practice of known skills – playing bridge, working puzzles, etc. These maintenance activities will also maintain current brain structures. But, learning new skills – a language, philosophy, story, activity – can result in measurable gains in neural capacity and structural change.
We’ve already established that physical exercise stimulates the hormones that trigger neural growth; science has also established a relationship between aerobic fitness and hippocampal size – a key memory structure in the brain. So, combining aerobic exercise and mental stimulation just makes sense. How about learning to dance? Or, if you’re already a dancer, how about a new kind of dance? Ever create your own steps or choreography? How about trying a new activity or sport altogether? Team sports make entirely different mental demands than individual sports and both are opportunities for making new connections.
I’d love to hear about your experiences in old or new exercise practices – so please, leave a comment!