(The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper published this blog i wrote in the Healthy Living Section of the paper on April 7, 2017)
Pop quiz: Does your brain slow down or speed up as you age?
The answer is: both.
If you feel you’re not recalling things as quickly as when you were younger, you’re probably right. Our brains get less effective at writing and storing information as we get older because the pathways leading to the area of the brain where memories are stored degrade gradually over time.
And you’ve probably heard the idea that “brain games” are the answer to stave off things like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But do crossword puzzles and games actually help?
Yes: but most likely, they only help to make you a better crossword player or game player!
Studies are decidedly mixed on the “crossword cure,” with research such as a 2013 study at the University of Iowa showing that doing puzzles brought no significant improvement in cognitive function. What will help is neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize and rebuild itself by forming new neural connections.
Same-old same-old makes us old
“While the human brain cannot regenerate itself, it can learn new functions by making new neuronal connections,” said Dr. Pierre Girgis, a neurosurgeon at UR Medicine. “This is how the brain can adapt in situations in which portions of it have been compromised.”
Unfortunately, as we get older, our bodies become creatures of habit. As an exercise trainer, I see that people tend to move in the same movement patterns and think in the same mental patterns, day in and day out, both at the gym and in life in general.
Ever take the same hike or walk the same route over and over because it feels relaxing? Have you gone to the same exercise class, stood in the exact same spot and did the exact same moves each week in class? Yes, these routines allow us to relax and “not think” after a long day at work. The problem, however, is that we are not stimulating our brain or body with new and different activities and not being mindful of the movements we do make. We basically end up living on “autopilot,” going through the smallest and most familiar motions possible to get the job done. Even our breathing is short and shallow because the same movements require about the same amount of breathing.
What our mind/body lacks in new movement patterns, our brain makes up for in other ways. Most peoples’ minds race from the moment the feet hit the floor in the morning until the head hits the pillow at night. What should I wear, where do the kids need to be today, how can I be at three places at one time, what will we have for dinner, did I pay that bill, when will I be able to fit in a workout….
That’s your brain speeding up, even as our bodies are slowing down. When your nervous system sees your mind racing at 100 mph and your body dragging along at 2 mph, the disconnect creates high anxiety. Your brain sounds the alarm to release cortisol to help offset your stress and boost energy levels. Cortisol is a hormone that can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, and reduce inflammation so your body regains its internal balance. That should be a good thing.
But in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal. Cortisol levels build up in the blood, which puts the mind and body in a constant state of high alert and action, even when we’re not moving at all.
Move the body and mind
The solution is to challenge yourself every day using both your mind and body together at the same time.
John Ratey, author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, talks about using new experiences and challenges to enhance both our cognitive and motor skills. Even little things can “wake up” our brains and bodies, stretching us toward better neuroplasticity. Simple things like:
At the recent IDEA Personal Trainer Fitness Conference in Washington, D.C., neuroplasticity was a hot topic. After hearing several presentations on the topic there, I immediately implemented these new ideas in my private training studio. My clients are now given between three to five specific “focus points” that they need to maintain while moving. They focus on motor control, reaction time, coordination and balance during each exercise.
This forces them to make a connection between mental focus and physical stimulation during each exercise. It takes a higher level of energy and more intensity for them and me, but the idea is to bring a lasting psychological impact rather than people “going through the motions” of exercise.
Experiences like these that we can create for ourselves don’t have to be huge or entirely new. Even small challenges help to rewire our brains for the better.
By 2050, the group Alzheimer's Disease International estimates that more than 135 million people globally will have dementia. We know that physical exercise is good for the brain because it helps strengthen neurons to help speed up our body movements. Similarly, when we teach an old brain new tricks, it can build new neural connections.
Ultimately, all this can help us slow down our daily thoughts and speed up our body movements so we’re in better, healthier synch.