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
In this issue, Mike O’Hara, PT gives ten reasons to love lunges. Video of lunge exercises/progressions are included. In Going Grizzly, Mike presents the exercise combination of Crawls and Sandbag Carries; a combination that helps you train more efficiently and move better. Watch the video for instruction on these exercises.
Crawl and Bearhug Sandbag Carry
When designing programs for rehabilitation patients and fitness clients, I often pair up exercises. This practice is commonly called super-setting and it has multiple benefits:
Train efficiently—You get much more work done during your training time.
Abolish performance deficits—Most physical therapy and fitness clients need to work on glaring right vs. left movement asymmetries, postural restrictions, and stability limitations.
Lose weight—Fat loss is a primary goal of most fitness clients. Pairing exercises ramps up exercise intensity and creates the hormonal response that improves body composition.
Move better—Training neurologically related movement patterns improves motor control.
Crawl and Bearhug Sandbag Carry
A finisher is a short but intense, high metabolic cost, training event performed at the end of an exercise session. The best finishers create carry over to real life activities and can be made more challenging as you become more fit. When linked to proper diet, finishers produce the “metabolic hit” that stimulates fat loss. As the name implies, you always perform finishers at the end of your workout because, afterwards, you will not want to do anything else.
Crawling is all about the spiral, diagonal force connection that happens through the middle of the body. Crawling is the primal exercise that enabled us to stand and walk. The “core muscles” neurologically connect the left hip with the right shoulder and the right hip with the left shoulder. They stabilize the pelvis and spine so you can transfer force from the hips to the shoulders. Crawling keeps that connection healthy and strong.
Bear Hug Sandbag Carry
The bear hug sandbag carry is the cure for the epidemic of device disability syndrome (DDS). This exercise reverses all of the weakness that is created by endless hours planted in a chair, staring into a screen. Sandbag carries are functional core stability work. The abdominal muscles interact with the muscles in the legs and shoulder girdle to hold a stable upright position. Walking with a sandbag kicks starts your postural reflexes, the neural feedback mechanism that holds us up against gravity. Do not go too heavy on the sandbag. You should be able to stay tall and not stagger or lean forward.
The routine is simple: Crawl for twenty yards—ten yards down and ten yards back. Try to keep the knees close to the floor and the back flat. Immediately after finishing the crawl, pick up the sandbag with a bear hug hold- no hands linked- and carry it for twenty yards. Rest as needed and repeat. Start out with three circuits and increase to five. Try to keep the rest periods under thirty seconds. Once you get up to five circuits, add a weight vest and then a heavier sandbag. Modify the distance, load, and cycles to suit your needs. Give the crawl/bear hug carry combo finisher a try and let me know how it goes.
View video of Mike performing sandbag carries here: https://youtu.be/Ygg2vbf-Uoo
-Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS
Most fitness folks go to the gym to reduce body fat levels and improve strength. They have busy lives and limited time available to spend on exercise. Many of them have prior orthopedic problems and movement limitations that require modification of training activities. They want the most benefit for the time they invest at the gym. These people do well with regular performance of what I call functional finishers.
A “finisher” is performed at the end of the workout. They deliver the hormonal responses that metabolize fat and improve work capacity. Functional finishers are designed to be joint friendly, scalable to any fitness level, and time efficient. Functional finishers carry over to better performance outside of the gym. You are stronger, more durable, and move better with consistent performance of functional finishers. Unlike the traditional 30 minutes of cardio they replace, functional finishers take less than twelve minutes to perform. They require effort and a willingness to push through a degree of discomfort.
SANDBAG CARRY / CRAWL
I got this one from strength coach Dan John. I have used this set up successfully with many fitness clients. Pick a sandbag that you can carry on the front of your body, not over your shoulder, for twenty yards. Be reasonable and choose a load that enables you to walk with a steady, upright, and tall gait. Walk twenty yards with the sandbag and then put the sandbag down and immediately crawl forward for ten yards. Rest for thirty seconds and repeat the crawl/carry combo. Perform three to five sets. When five sets starts getting easier increase the carry distance to thirty yards and the crawl to fifteen yards.
GOBLET SQUAT / SLED PUSH
Find a kettlebell you can goblet squat for fifteen repetitions. Load up a sled with 50% to 100% of your body weight. Perform ten goblet squats and then immediately push the sled for twenty yards. Your sled push should be a smooth and steady cadence—not a sprint and not a plow horse pace. Rest for no more than thirty seconds and repeat. I figure the weight of the kettlebell into the load on the sled and place it on the sled so it travels with me and is ready for the next set. Perform three or four sets.
180 YARD SHUTTLE RUN / OVERHEAD MED BALL THROWS
You need some open space, a medicine ball, and a wall. Run down thirty yards and then back thirty yards three times for a total of 180 yards. Immediately afterward perform ten overhead medicine ball throws off the wall—use a four or six pound ball. Keep the feet planted and parallel to the wall. Throw with the entire body and not just the arms. Let the ball bounce of the floor. Rest for forty-five seconds and then repeat. Perform two or three circuits.
If your goal is fat loss, what you eat remains the most important aspect of your fitness program. Functional finishers are an effective method of ramping up your results. Give them a try.
-Michael O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS
The Tiger Crawl Brings It All Together
We all owned this move at one time. We all could crawl, and we did it very well. Infants can motor along at a full speed crawl, but many adults are unable to even get in the crawl position. Getting back to performing some four point crawling helps restore mobility, coordination, and balance, and it makes you a better runner.
Rebooting Your Neural Software
The crawling we did as a child helped develop the neural connections that enable us to walk. All of us have established neural pathways for crawling. They are just cluttered up and inhibited by prior injuries, poor posture, bad training habits, and a sedentary lifestyle. Performing some crawls brings these pathways back to life.
Reciprocal Gait Pattern
We move in an opposite arm, opposite leg pattern. Walking, jogging, and sprinting all involve this cross body connection that efficiently propels our body. Most fitness activities have minimal or no activation of the reciprocal pattern of walking and running. You activate this reciprocal pattern of motion with the crawl.
Better Hip Mobility, Core Stability, and Posture
We are a nation of sitters. Prolonged sitting is not a normal activity. It promotes tight and weak hips and shoulders, inhibits the function of the core stabilizers, and destroys your posture. We need some training that moves us out of the sitting position, activates our core, takes the hips through their normal range of motion, and drives the postural muscles.
Cross Body Core Stability
Our muscles are arranged in an interconnected, spiral, and diagonal fashion. They are wired to connect your left hip with the right shoulder and the right hip with the left shoulder. The “core muscles” are designed to stabilize your middle so you can produce a better shoulder to hip connection. Crawling creates the anti-rotation and anti-extension force these muscles must control.
I like to perform all crawl activities on a turf surface or carpet. Grass fields hide rocks, broken glass, and other objects to avoid. Get down on all fours. Lift the knees off the floor and bring the right knee up to the right elbow. The left arm is extended forward and the left leg back. Pull the left leg up to the left elbow and move forward with the right arm as you extend the right leg. Your pelvis must stay stable as you move the hips into alternate flexion and extension. Try to keep the butt down and maintain a consistent and even reach with the limbs. Strive for full extension and flexion at the hips. Three sets of fifteen to twenty yards is a good start.
Tiger Crawl Progressions
Weight Vest Tiger Crawl
Put on your weight vest and go. This progression is an upper body intensive activity. I find my shoulders and upper back are the weak link in the chain. Many collegiate wrestling, football, and rugby programs use this drill.
Sled Tiger Crawl
Load up a sled and use a belt or shoulder harness and crawl. This variation helps develop better hip mobility and hip adductor strength. Keep the weights conservative and maintain proper spinal posture and full hip drive.
Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS