By Cynthia Horner
We have a brain because we move. A sea squirt attaches itself to a rock so it no longer needs to move, then it does an extraordinary thing; it eats its brain, all other body functions continue without its brain. If we have a brain because we move, could movement enhance and improve the function of our brain? You betch ya.
Many animals survived by becoming faster, bigger or meaner but humans have survived by becoming smarter. When the food supply diminished, humans were forced to walk to find food. Before we learned to ride animals and long before the invention of automobiles people walked on average 12 miles a day. The human brain developed, not by sitting around but through movement. Humans grew up moving or they did not grow up at all.
Today with our high tech scanning devises we now understand why. What all this movement did for us was to increase out heart rate and changed our brains to function at its best for the entire time we were alive. Movement that increases heart rate, triggers the brain to make BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor), which acts like a brain cell fertilizer and helps brain cells stay healthy. A healthy brain cell has a good cell membrane surrounding it. A good cell membrane allows charged particles in and out at just the right time, in turn causing the brain cell to fire on cue, not too early, not to late but right on cue. When a brain cell fires it wires or connects to other brain cells. The more firing and wiring in the brain the healthier and better functioning it is. We all want to think well and remember well even after we have been on earth six, seven or eight decades. Decreased brain function or neurodegeneration does not have to happen as we age.
Just how exercise changes brain function was what they found out at Central High School in Naperville Illinois, where they decided to teach kids how to monitor and maintain their health and fitness and as a direct result improved each participant’s academic performance. Each student was required to run a mile, three times a week, keeping at their target heart rate. What they saw in the first year was those who participated were more alert, their senses heightened, their focus and mood improved and they were less fidgety. The most impressive result was an increase in working memory and processing speed and an increase in their GPA. They then extended the fitness program to the middle school students. Naperville’s eighth graders were among 230,000 students from around the world to take the T.I.M.S.S. (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) a test that evaluates knowledge in math and science. In the past China, Japan and Singapore have outdone Americans in these subjects, but in 1999 one year after the new fitness program began; Naperville’s students finished sixth in math and first in science.
Can anyone, at any age improve brain function through movement? The answer is an astounding yes. Any kind of movement is good; dancing, walking, running, martial arts, swimming, rowing, biking or anyn other movement you may enjoy. How soon can you expect results? Some improvement happens immediately. A truly sharp brain can be described as improving cognitive flexibility and creativity; this is coming up with new ideas and thinking out of the box, not simply remembering past facts. To accomplish this several areas of the brain need to change; to best do this it is recommended to increase heart rate into your target zone for 20 to 30 minutes, 2 to 3 times a week, for 12 weeks. Mixing coordination exercises with aerobic activity will bring about improvement in many more areas of the brain including those involved with speech and balance which are complementary to thinking, creativity, memory and problem solving. Decreased brain function does not have to happen simply because you are getting older. Movement is life, so make it a part of your life; all your life.
References: Spark, the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain; by John J. Ratey, MD
Brain Rules; by John Medina
Cynthia Horner is a chiropractor in Greenville SC with advanced study in the field of movement and brain function. She uses various forms of movement to improve brain and spinal function in her practice. She has been involved in a fitness program with Jamie Blair at Fitness with a View for the past 11 years.