Better Brain, New Body

Do you lose your keys now and then? Afraid of the ever-increasing senior moments, where you walk into a room and forget why you are there? I started getting those in my teens. My mother would ask me to go down to the basement to get some potatoes, and I would come back two hours later, usually without the potatoes. Do you know that expression, “You would lose your head if it weren’t attached to your body?” My mother testifies that she said it first.

Now that I am a 54 year-old space cadet, I’ve noticed that’s there a growing number of brain fitness programs to come to the rescue. But really, how does the brain get fit anyway? It’s not that different than arm flab, folks. It’s a use it or lose it situation. But it’s the “how” to use it that brain researchers are are honing in on. Spending all day doing crossword puzzles is fine and dandy. You may, in fact, get very good at crossword puzzles; however, we don’t see the same brain action as in learning a new dance step. Apparently, the brain needs a little movement to sharpen itself. But, keep in mind, mindlessly running on a treadmill is not the equivalent of learning a new movement either. Our brain needs challenges, something new; it’s an organ that thrives on novelty. New connections in the brain are most easily established through learning movement, so a dance class, a new swim stroke, or even taking a walk down a different hiking path could forge new pathways in the brain.

MaryBeth Smith, a certified teacher of the Feldenkrais Method and the director and founder of the Feldenkrais Center of Houston, has been helping people increase their neural pathways for the past decade through gentle movement classes called Awareness Through Movement (ATM) and one-on-one sessions called Functional Integration. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, a mechanical engineer and physicist, first identified that movement was the key to improving the nervous system.

While lying in a quiet room on a soft mat, Smith leads her students through a gentle sequence of movements designed to improve a particular function such as reaching, bending or twisting. The trick is that she throws in some weird moves too, such as the eyes moving one way and the knees going another. “Novelty doesn’t have to mean high risk,” says Smith. “You don’t have to be doing the most demanding yoga class to get the mental benefits.” The movements may be easy to do, but they are often complex and involve a little figuring it out time. The movement sometimes feels strange and awkward; you actually feel the dust flying off those rusty brain gears. Afterwards, you feel taller, lighter and more mentally sharp. It seems our smarts are inexorably linked to our bodies. “We seem to accept that our brain can direct our bodies, but communication goes both ways,” says Smith. “Our body can change our brain too.”

Ericka Simpson MD, a neurologist at the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, helps us understand connection between movement and the brain. “Movement activates more your brain at once because it involves spatial intelligence, coordination, strength, visual perception, emotion and joy all at once,” says Simpson. “It forces us to make stronger connections. We call it synaptic density.” Not all movement has that property. “Tapping on my desk is not the equivalent of taking of salsa class, which forces me to learn something new,” she adds. Simpson compares making new neural pathways to road building; with new movements, we go from a foot path, to a dirt road to a busy highway.

The new buzz word in the field is neuroplasticity, which is a fancy way of saying that we can continue to get smarter well into old age. Recent research suggests that even 90 year-olds can increase their vocabulary. Remember that Verdi composed Falstaff at the ripe old age of 79. So take up that tango lesson, drive a different way home from work or try one of Smith’s Feldenkrais classes. “Engage in a lifestyle where you challenge yourself, do things that make your brain work,” advises Simpson. “And don’t worry about being good at it. Novelty is indeed the key to an active brain.”As for forgetfulness, apparently a touch of it is normal, but if you happen to find my keys, will you call me?

For more information on the Feldenkrais Center of Houston, visit Houfeldenkrais.com.

Reprinted from Absolutely in the Loop.

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