If you have been hearing the term “neuroplasticity” quite bit lately, you’re not alone. New research in brain health has changed previous thinking about the brain, from the idea of the brain as a computer with set programming, to the realization that the brain can heal itself, learn new behaviours and also re-learn lost ones (Kleim & Jones, 2008). Rather than being fixed and unchanging, the brain is adaptable, according to research and information popularized by neuroscientists such as Dr. Michael Merzenich, and psychiatrists such as Norman Doidge, MD. These researchers suggest that a wide array of interventions including meditation, biofeedback, sound therapy, brain exercises, and most importantly exercise and movement, can help a variety of conditions affecting cognition, including Parkinsons, MS, ADHD, and stroke. Scientists are actively studying how specific types of therapies can also help prevent or possibly reverse other types of age-related cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Of particular interest to fitness enthusiasts, cardiovascular exercise may stave off cognitive decline by creating new neurons (neurogenesis) and enhancing the survival of existing and new brain cells. However, other forms of exercise may be equally beneficial for cognition. New research by the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of British Columbia found that light strength training slows the growth of lesions in the brain that cause memory impairment. Other exercise interventions for enhanced cognition and prevention of decline include dual tasking, which pairs a physical challenge such as a balance exercise or locomotion such as walking, with a cognitive challenge such as simple math, object naming, or word association drills. This type of exercise pairing works on ‘executive function’, the brain’s ability to divide attention, and is an important factor in preventing falls.
According to Dr. Sarah McKay, a prominent neuroscientist and the writer of “Your Brain Health”, interventions which tap into plasticity should include focused attention, determination, and hard work. If these elements are not present, brain changes are not likely to occur, states McKay. She stresses that it is important to practice skills frequently to change more neural connections. Exercises should include sensory information, movement, and cognitive patterns. In addition, learning a skill is important for cell to cell cooperation, and in order to make changes long-lasting. Powerful, new, or novel experiences are also more likely to result in permanent change.
Here is a fun group exercise from the fitness class “Brain & Body Workout” at Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia:
Theatre Sports: Place several chairs in a circle. You should have at least four people for this activity. Begin with a simple physical challenge such as the ‘sit to stand’ (sitting down on a chair and then immediately standing up, in a steady and rhythmic fashion.) The group is then given the task of telling a story word by word. First, a title is created for the story. One participant starts with one word, and the next participant adds another word or phrase, such as:
Once upon a time there was a _________, and every day he/she ____________, until one day ________________ and because of that ____________ and because of that _______________ and because of that ______________ , etc., creating a story that has its own logic and terms.
Be sure to pick appropriate (and simple) physical challenges, and change it as needed so that an appropriate level of challenge is given and participants do not strain or injure themselves.