Exercise for Physical, Emotional and Intellectual Fitness
Copyright (c) 2008 Ainsley Laing
In July, my daughter and I went snow skiing (yes, I did say July – southern hemisphere winter). During the week we skied, both of us took lots of lessons. My daughter because she is new to skiing and me because the last time I skied was 18 years ago! Those of you who ski know that the way one skis is different than it used to be because the design of the skis has changed. Easier in many ways once you embrace the differences!
Anyway, the instructor that I had said something that really stuck with me… and hence this article. He said “it takes 1000 repetitions of a movement to make it become automatic”. If you are involved in a sport, performing art or other physically based pursuit, this will make a lot of sense to you. As a dancer and fitness instructor, I see this in action a lot. Rehearsing for a show, ideally one rehearses to the point where the body takes over on stage. If the movements are automatic, you can emotionally freeze up (stage fright), engage the audience or even think about other things and your body will do it anyway. When this happens, for me this feels as if my head has detached from my body and is having a great time!
So what is the point being made here? The brain makes new neural pathways for each new movement that we do. It grows much in the same way as when you play a mathematics game or do any new intellectual activity. Also, when you use these new physical movement skills in different ways, the brain has to develop ways to access these movements from memory and sequence them.
Given this, it stands to reason that doing not only exercises you enjoy but also a variety of exercises leads to better health and a more flexible brain at all life stages. After all, we insist our kids expose themselves to sports, games, math, music, languages, drama (ok, too long but you get the idea) to help them grow and develop!
So, let’s say that you have a routine that has gotten you fit and you like it because it works within your life goals and restrictions. (Life can get in the way of one’s fitness activities!) For example, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays you like to go for a run early in the morning. Tuesdays and Thursdays you work out with weights at home. It makes you feel good, you like it and you don’t want to change. Don’t! But how about “tweaking” your runs to include other things? Or incorporate different types of running, such as sprinting into your routine? In the case of your weight workout, how about varying the speed of each lift? Small changes seem simple enough, but my guess is your brain will resist at first – it will “feel” weird.
Now, let’s look at the link between brain fitness and emotional well being. I think you will agree that brain health and emotional health are connected. I mean, how clearly do you think under extreme stress? Some years ago, I was seeing a psychotherapist because I felt I needed help coping with the stress of some life changes I was making. One of the things I learned is that an emotionally healthy person is flexible and less fearful of change. The more stressed or fearful we are the more we tend to try to control the situations we put ourselves into. Add this idea to the knowledge that we have of exercise improving mood and helping with depression (runner’s high or whatever you want to name it) and what conclusions can we make?
*Moving your body builds new neural pathways.
*Physical movements build different neural pathways as do intellectual activities.
*Stress causes physical as well as emotional responses in the body and the brain.
*Exercising increases the feel good hormones in the body.
*Exercise helps with physical manifestations of emotions like sleep problems, lack of appetite and nervousness.
*A stressed or fearful person doesn’t handle change well.
*The brain, like the body can become less flexible with age unless it is used (the old anecdote that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”).
*Physical activity improves mental acuity, emotional well being and brain flexibility.
My personal conclusion…. Adding or changing fitness activities or taking up new sports appears to be yet another way to keep our brains (and bodies) fitter, younger and help us be more confident when presented with stressors associated with life’s challenges.
Salsa dancing anyone?