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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.

Walking 101

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.”

-Thomas Jefferson

All Crawl

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

Wise Up Bone Head

Bicycle Helmets and Head Injuries

While on a much needed family vacation, Larry and his wife ventured off for a bicycle ride around the resort.  Larry is not sure what happened, but he woke up in the hospital with a severe wrist fracture and a concussion.  Larry was not wearing a helmet and his wife reported that he went over the handlebars during a low speed turn.  Surgical repair of the wrist and some therapy restored his ability to grip, lift, and carry, but his mental capacity has remained impaired since the fall.  He has been unable to return to work secondary to memory deficits and problems with planning.  Larry has difficulty remembering the names of his coworkers and neighbors.  His wife reports he is more emotional and that she cannot let him drive without a navigator to assist in the return home.  Every physical therapist has a number of these stories.

If you or your children ride a bike, take the time to read. Buckle Up a Helmet to Save a Life by Jane Brody in the October 23, 2017 issue of the New York Times.  Jane recounts her own helmet free tumble from a bicycle and the statistics on bicycle head injuries.

No helmet bike riders tell me they are “extra careful” and that they “stay off busy roads”.  They are assuming that people fall off bikes solely to due to pilot error.  Bike accidents happen because of bad roads, distracted car drivers, and more recently, other bike riders. People driving trucks, cars, and other bicycles are not looking for bicyclists.  They are on autopilot–listening to the radio, talking on the phone, and texting.  You need a helmet now more than ever.

As a physical therapist, I get to work with individuals who have suffered closed head injuries.  Nothing creates a more sudden and long lasting change in your world than an impact to your cranium.  It does not take that much in the way of force to permanently alter the way you move, think, react to stress, and function during the day.  If in the past you did not use a helmet because of the appearance, I urge you reconsider.  An eternity of cognitive impairment and an inability to find your way home should be more concerning than your bicycle style.

* New York Times, Buckle Up a Helmet to Save a Life, Jane Brody, October 23, 2017 issue.  Read the article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/23/well/buckle-up-a-helmet-to-save-a-life.html?_r=0

Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS

In the physical therapy clinic, it is not uncommon to see the same person for the same problem after participating in the same event. The yearly spring gardening marathon creates the annual bloom of debilitating lower back pain. The never missed 10 mile “fun run” in August inflames the knee until mid-October. The recent popularity of “Adventure Runs” has created a migratory return of patients with recurrent pain problems. Gretchen Reynolds wrote a great article in the New York Times, “Forgetting the Pain of Exercise,” that offers some psychological insight into this phenomenon.

The physical therapy patients’ “selective amnesia” of prior pain provoking events is discussed in this article. It appears the emotional context of a painful event plays a role in our memory of pain. Our enjoyment of the pain provoking behavior reduces our memory of the pain that it created. The problem is that all of us have the capacity to suffer another injury, we just may no longer have the capacity to fully recover.

To read the article, click on the link below:


-Michael O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS