Happy Brain Exercises
Daily Neurodevelopmental Brain Boosters
Exercise improves brain neurochemistry, neural connections, and even the number of brain neurons. I have two suggestions on the best exercise activities to improve brain health. They both have roots in human neurodevelopment and can be employed by nearly everyone. Build better brain health with a walk and a crawl.
Morning walks work magic. Many top leaders talk about how much better they think and analyze when they start the day with exercise. If you are the decision maker for your family or company, please take a morning walk.
Cadence Counts. If you are moving at 60 steps a minute, you are not walking, you are strolling. A compilation of many studies has found that 100 steps per minute as the sweet spot for walkers under the age of sixty. The data for older walkers has yet to be fully evaluated, but it appears the cadence should not slow much below 100.
Tune in. Ditch the earbuds. Tame the dopamine damage of “connectivity” and leave the phone at home. Be alone with your thoughts for the duration of your walk. Gandhi, St. Augustine, Thomas Jefferson tell us that difficult problems are resolved with contemplative walks.
Get off the pavement. The human species evolved walking through undeveloped environments. Take your walk to a quitter and more tranquil setting. More trees, less noise, and serene surroundings provide a calmer event. I personally believe that uneven and inclined pathways do a better job at stimulating neurodevelopmental pathways.
Get comfortable with a long walk. Thirty minutes a day is great, but once a week go for a sixty-minute walk. Stretch out the distance you can travel. Load up a backpack with water and try a two hour ruck walk. There is no greater brain regenerating activity than a long October nature walk in Michigan.
“Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.”
It does not matter if you are an Ashtanga Yoga devotee, hard style kettlebell lifter, Crossfit firebreather, PureBarre, or Pilates disciple, there is one exercise that everyone in the fitness world has performed. For many months we all diligently worked on becoming better at this exercise and it rewarded us with crucial neural connections. The bad news is that most of us have stopped using this exercise. The good news is that we can still use the crawl pattern and reboot the brain connections that allowed us to stand and walk.
More of your brain is devoted to movement than any other activity. Despite what you have read, muscles never work in isolation. Our muscles are arranged in an interconnected, spiral, and diagonal fashion. The “core muscles” are neurologically wired to connect your left hip with the right shoulder and the right hip with the left shoulder. They are designed to stabilize your middle so you can transfer force from the hips to the shoulders. Crawling is all about that critical, spiral-diagonal connection.
Try adding two crawl training sessions a week to your fitness program. Crawls are one of those exercises that produce the “What the heck?” effect. Other activities of daily living suddenly become easier. Joints move better, posture improves, and long standing soreness resolves. Just ask any baby.
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
Get Sweaty and Get Smarter
The big benefit of a consistent program of exercise is the impact it has on the nervous system. Muscle strength, flexibility, fat loss, and greater endurance are the happy side effects. Immersion in a fitness program keeps the brain healthy and receptive to learning.
Anyone concerned with optimizing brain health needs to read Spark, by Dr John Ratey. In this book, he discusses how brain function is enhanced by the habit of exercise. Over the last nine years, more research has documented the positive effects of exercise on brain health and learning. Read the recent *article from the New York Times on how we learn language more readily if we exercise.
* How Exercise Could Help You Learn a New Language, Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times, August 16, 2017
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
Better Tests With More Movement
I attended an overcrowded grade school. From 1st through 8th grade, we had 40 or more children in a classroom. One Felician sister kept order by keeping everyone seated and stationary. During my grade school education, I was stuck in a chair and every day it felt like time had stood still. When a school day came to an end, the children were so movement deprived they would literally sprint out the doors. I believe this illustrates the psychological impact of depriving children of movement during the day.
I know we have to be concerned with standardized test scores, and that taking time for physical activity takes away from reading, math, and science. A long litany of research is revealing that children score better on tests when they are able to move around more. More movement creates a healthier brain and better test scores. More of the brain is devoted to movement than language, and if we wish to fully develop intellectual capacity, we need to include movement. This appears to be even more important for boys.
Everyone involved in improving education needs to read Spark, by Dr John Ratey. In this book, he discusses how brain function is enhanced by the habit of exercise. Over the last nine years, more research has documented the positive effects of exercise on brain health. A teacher friend sent me this *article from the New York Times. If you have grandchildren or children you need to read this.
Micheal S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
* Why Kids Shouldn’t Sit Still in Class, Donna De La Cruz, New York Times, March 21, 2017. Read the article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/well/family/why-kids-shouldnt-sit-still-in-class.html?_r=0
While performing Kettlebell swings or some medicine ball throws, I get the question, “What does that exercise work?” The answer is “My brain.” I quickly explain how optimal training activates your nervous system and builds the neurons and synapses necessary for brain health. A research query of great interest is the impact exercise has on the aging brain. The New York Times, December 31, 2016 article by Dr. Lisa Felman Barrett, *How to Become a ‘Superager’, presents some interesting research.
The article discusses the research results that studied functional MRI scans of the brains of superagers. Superagers are elderly individuals that score well on tests of memory, task attentiveness, and planning. These MRI evaluations looked at both the anatomical and activity differences in various locations of the brains of these cognitively adept older adults. The researchers and Dr. Feldman Barret give us some recommendations on lifestyle challenges that produce a superager brain. It involves some consistent involvement in strenuous exercise activity and ongoing intellectually challenging tasks.
*New York Times, December 31, 2016, Dr. Lisa Felman Barrett, How to Become a ‘Superager’. See the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/31/opinion/sunday/how-to-become-a-superager.html?_r=0
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
A Little Realistic Reasoning
Worst: I want to lose weight.
Most people are not successful in losing weight with exercise. The ones who are have generally been diligent in following a disciplined nutritional regimen and this was the reason the numbers on the scale went down. Now whether the reduction was good—fat loss, or bad—bone and muscle loss, we do not know, but exercise alone is generally a poor method of weight loss. Not losing any weight is a primary reason people stop participating in an exercise program.
Best: I want to stay healthy.
Two thirds of the American population get no regular physical activity. The adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle have been proven. Physical inactivity is far more debilitating than most of us realize. One way or another, you will end up spending time and money on your health. Spend it up front with exercise and proper education, or spend it later on medical tests, disease treatments, and doctors’ bills. The good news is you get to choose.
Worst: I want six pack abs.
This is probably not going to happen no matter how hard most of us train. Body fat levels have to get down to well below 12 percent to see an outline of the abdominal muscles. Twelve percent for men is low and for women it may be unhealthy.
Best: I want my brain to function at high levels.
Lots of new research has been done on exercise and its effect on the brain. The animal and human research subjects that perform the most physical activity have the best scores on brain function tests. Read the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Dr. John J. Ratey. I would rather have a pumped frontal cortex and a jacked hippocampus than chiseled abs.
Worst: I am making up for eating like an idiot.
You can’t out run a cookie. It is much easier to ingest more calories than burn them off with exercise. The damage caused by a diet filled with bad food, alcohol, and tobacco cannot be magically counter balanced with an hour on the elliptical or a step class. Success with exercise has a huge psychological component. Several studies have shown it is difficult to stay consistent with exercise if you mentally approach it as punishment for bad behavior.
Best: I want to feel good for a long time.
Move well and you feel well. If you can maintain the capacity to get off the floor, squat, lunge, and rotate, you will be far less likely to have pain. Rarely do I evaluate a patient with shoulder, neck, knee, or lower back pain and not find a glaring loss of mobility or strength. Maintaining the ability to move should be a lifelong pursuit for anyone interested in staying active and independent into old age.
-Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS
When I am asked the, “What muscle does that exercise work?” question, my response is always the hippocampus. I am not joking. The big benefits of a consistent program of exercise are neural and hormonal. Muscle strength, flexibility, fat loss, and greater endurance are all good but the greatest impact on your health and quality of life is achieved by developing a finely tuned nervous system and a beneficial hormonal profile.
While performing Turkish Get Ups or Med Ball Throws, I get the question, “What does that exercise work?” The answer is “My brain.” I quickly explain how optimal training activates your nervous system (brain) and improves how you move. An area of intense research is the impact exercise has on the aging brain. A study that utilized high-resolution brain imaging tests has now shown that consistent strength training improves brain health in the elderly. Furthermore, it appears that two sessions of strength training a week has a better brain bolstering effect than one session.
Read the October 21, 2015, New York Times article by Gretchen Reynolds, “Lifting Weights, Twice a Week, May Aid the Brain.” Then, get your scrawny medulla oblongata to the gym and do some pull ups.
To read the article, click on the link below:
-Michael O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS
In chapter nine of his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey lays out the physiological effects exercise produces in the aging brain. Everyone should read this chapter. It will give you the motivation to get up and move more often. Since this book was published in 2008, more studies have revealed that exercise is the best method we presently know of to preserve brain function.
A July 2, 2014 New York Times article, Can Exercise Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk written by Gretchen Reynolds, discusses a recent study on structural brain changes in people who have a genetic propensity for developing dementia. The study was unique in that it used imaging tests to assess a brain structure called the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a big part in memory and is often shrunken in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. Despite having the genetic propensity to develop degenerative changes, the subjects who participated in regular exercise showed significantly less hippocampus atrophy than their sedentary counterparts. The subjects who exercised had hippocampi that looked normal.
Take the time to read the attached New York Times article and get Dr. Ratey’s book. The primary reason we should be moving around more is to keep our brain healthy.
To read the article, click on the link below:
Michael O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS