Cardiovascular exercise is documented to increase brain activity, but may or may not increase neural pathways and support longterm mental acuity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Also known as brain plasticity, neuroplasticity is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity – it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury. In our profession, we most commonly relate to it as “muscle memory” from sports or training. It also comes about from behavioral habits, daily schedules and patterns, teachings, environmental design or obstacles, and belief systems.
Recent developments in neuroscience overturned long-held beliefs and understanding about the brain and its ability to heal, adapt and change. Undisputed is that the more neural pathways you have, the better your odds are of retaining mental acuity as you age. And, lifelong cognitive stimulation has been associated with a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimers Disease for years. More recently, studies are showing that cognitive stimulation alone provides moderate improvement in rates of decline. Cardiovascular exercise is documented to increase brain activity, but may or may not increase neural pathways and support longterm mental acuity.
In the age when any neurological damage was thought to be irreversible, and when mental stimulation was encouraged to stave off dementia and Alzheimers Disease, neuroplasticity had little to do with exercise. New findings have changed all that –
- We CAN heal our neurological system, specific neural pathways, and nerve damage. Depending on the insult and resultant damage, it can take minimal to monumental effort. Muscle tone, mindset, determination, and nutrition are all factors in the neurological healing process.
- There is compelling evidence for “physical activity” (although in this study, not specified as to what type of activity) as an efficacious approach to Alzheimers Disease prevention, particularly in risk-enriched cohorts.
- Physical interaction with an enriched environment, combined with intense behavioral testing resulted in dramatic reductions in both total and mature amyloid beta deposition (in the brain, highly correlated in Alzheimers and Dementia conditions.) occurring over the 6 weeks of the trials (in mice… )
- In a 21 year study of ages 75+ that studied both cognitive (reading, writing for pleasure, crossword puzzles, playing cards, and playing musical instruments) AND a number of physical activities (tennis, golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise, and doing housework) – The only physical activity (of the ones in the study) to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing, with 76% risk reduction.
My father recently passed away at the age of 84 after 10ish years with Alzheimers Disease. He was a walker, which served him well – clearly his brain would work “better” on our walks together than it did when not exercising, as he would share stories of our family I’d never heard (as well as many I’d heard repeatedly). It may have slowed the decline, but did not protect him from it. Since taking the Ageless Grace Educator training in 2011 I’ve been reading the research about his condition with personal and professional interest.
Remain Neural Pathway Rich
There are 3 mechanisms for becoming or remaining “neural pathway rich.”
- Utilizing an existing or previously used neural pathway.
Haven’t been on a bike in a while? Get on and ride. Haven’t played piano for 30 years? Sit down and play your last recital piece, or take a few lessons. Re-engaging old or existing neural pathways is typically easier than generating new ones.
- Generating a new pathway for a previously familiar task.
In the case of injury or neural damage it is possible for your body to generate a NEW neural pathway to accomplish many tasks. It can take time, determination, positive attitude, and repetition…and it is possible. (Read “The Brain the Changes Itself,” by Norman Doidge.)
- Generating a completely NEW neural pathway for a previously unknown and unfamiliar task.
An Ageless Grace participant once shared that she had NEVER participated in ANY sports. Her participation in the tool, “Team Fit,” where we emulate numerous sports endeavors, was generating completely NEW neural pathways for her. If there is some physical task or experience you’ve always wanted to do but never got around to it – there’s no time like the present to work toward that goal!
Applying this to your classes
My conclusions for fitness instructors, class participants and myself are derived from reading the research, listening to numerous lectures, Ageless Grace® Educator Training, and teaching hundreds of senior fitness classes:
- Working the brain is as important as working the muscles.
Whether it is a new routine, a new fitness form, a new move or combination of moves, or participating in a class taught by a teacher who has a completely different style from yours, or learning to twirl a pencil with your toes.
- Challenging the brain.
New patterns, sequences, tempos, and quick changes can generate as much cardio and sweat as a more strenuous workout of the larger muscle groups doing a “bigger workout” of repeated movement – while avoiding repetitive use injury. It is also great for the brain and creates new neural pathways.
- Activate, use, work.
The smaller muscle groups as much as the larger muscle groups, and find ways to use the larger muscle groups in new moves. Make it interesting and teach it so that the larger muscle groups aren’t compensating for the less adept muscles. This will build new neural pathways AND strengthen the body to be more resilient.
- New Classes.
Go to a fitness class you’ve never been to before. A genius approach that an Ageless Grace Educator shared with me was that she goes to a DIFFERENT fitness class every day of the week (kickboxing on Monday, ballet on Tuesday, TRX on Wednesday…, Nia, AquaFit, for example). Her gym changes a few classes on their schedule each quarter, so she looks at the schedule, picks a new class or two and changes her program. You’ll also get team-player points with your fellow teachers!
- Educate your students on Neuroplasticity and why it matters to them.
Let them know that it is valuable to their brains to be challenged. Frustration – but not the point of a cortisol stress reaction – actually helps your body build new neural pathways and that is good for fending of dementia.
- Use a LOT of variety in the classes you teach.
In my warm water Fitness classes (4 per week) I never teach the same program, and I introduce something (or a few new and different things) in every class. Modifications to familiar patterns will either be easy or really challenge the brain, and you won’t know which way it will go until you try it.
The discovery of Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and heal, overturned 400 years of belief that the brain is static after a certain age (18 – 25). Neuroscience is now evolving at lightning speed, and with high stakes in research as it addresses dementias, stroke and injury recovery – that also give us keys to retaining our mental capacity by exercising the brain-body connection, which I hope will inform and inspire all group exercise professionals.
This article is a distillation from many different sources and experiences, including:
- Medved, Denise. Hendersonville, NC. Ageless Grace Educator Certification, Trainer support materials, and Seminar for Personal Practice.
- Doidge, Norman. The Brain that Changes Itself. (and YouTube documentary of same name. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFCOm1P_cQQ)
- Doidge, Norman. Norman Doidge: Brain’s Healing Energies. YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifYcE4-eI_s
- Powers, Richard. Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter.
- Wheeler, Mark. October 02, 2014. UCLA Newsroom. Memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s reversed for the First Time.
- Costa, David A., Cracchiolo, Jennifer R., Bachstetter, Adam D. et al. Enrichment improves cognition in AD mice by amyloid-related and unrelated mechanisms. Neurobiology of Aging 28(2007) 831-844.
- Okwonkwo, Ozioma C. PhD. Schultz, Stphanie A. BSc., Oh, Jennifer M., BSc. Et al. Physical activity attenuates age-related biomarker alterations in preclinical AD. Published online before print Oct. 8, 2014 in Neurology.
- Jesus Avila, Jose J. Lucas, Mar Perez, Felix Hernandez. Physiological Reviews Published 1 April 2004 Vol. 84 no. 2, 361-384 DOI: 10.1152/physrv.00024.2003. Role of Tau Protein in Both Physiological and Pathological Conditions.