Meaningful Movement and the Mind
Does exercise support cognition, in other words better thinking?
And if so, how much and what kind is most effective?
These questions are being asked over an over, and the conclusion seems to be: that exercise has positive effects on how we think.
Dr. John Ratey’s (author of Spark and Go Wild) website “Sparking Life” states:
Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function
Many of the studies done in this field however, focus on how exercise brings about positive physiological changes such as better blood flow and positive biochemical releases.
Here’s and example:
In this study, Brawn and Brains, researchers measured leg power in identical twins and found,
The differences in thinking skills were particularly striking within twin pairs. If one twin had been more powerful than the other 10 years before, she tended to be a much better thinker now. In fact, on average, a muscularly powerful twin now performed about 18 percent better on memory and other cognitive tests than her weaker sister.
The researcher went one to speculate that the reason for this might be:
The study also was not designed to uncover how muscle power builds brainpower, Dr. Steves pointed out, although she said she suspects that working muscles release biochemicals that travel to the brain and affect cellular health there. And the sturdier the muscles, the more of these chemicals they create.
The emphasis on studying physiological changes brought about by exercising is understandable because they can be measured and quantified. While this research is important and telling, I think that there are other factors involved.
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais said:
“Movement is life, life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”
Take the above study measuring leg strength and cognitive abilities in the identical twins. A possible additional explanation for the cognitive differences could be that those who had stronger legs also moved more. By moving, I don’t mean the kind of repetitive exercises like those done in a health club but rather moved more in their lives.
Perhaps the twins who had stronger legs were better able to walk, could stand up and sit down more easily, plus probably felt more secure in daily activities. So in turn, they tended to be more involved in life, participated in more activities, and were more socially engaged. In short, they were using more of their brains. From other research, we also know that using your brain keeps it functioning better.
Those who feel weak, unsure and less capable than they’re used to will probably begin to do less, and doing less will have negative effects on their brains. Reducing movement can mean a reduction in activity and engagement in life, and that creates the conditions for a downward spiral.
Of course I can’t prove this and I suspect that a study which could, would need to measure not just the amount and quality of movement throughout a person’s day for a long period of time, but also what that person was doing while moving. This would be overwhelmingly complex.
So right now, not a day goes by without some sort of news on how exercise is good for the brain. This can be good news in that there’s hope. It can also be bad news in that some might feel that they have to exercise, even if they don’t enjoy doing so.
So what can those who don’t want to exercise do to save their brains?
Find some forms of meaningful movement or activities.
When I go jogging in the local forest, I see some who look like they’re enjoying themselves and others who are slogging along, looking disgruntled and breathing noisily. The problem with “exercise” is that it may be something you “have to do” rather than “get to do.” What are the effects of “happy jogging” versus “disgruntled jogging?”
Let’s say our disgruntled jogger would rather be with his friends than jogging alone. If they went for a walk together, enjoyed each other’s company and got some fresh air, they would most likely be doing more for their brains than just repeating and ingraining the misery of jogging. Now I’m not saying that jogging has to be miserable, I quite enjoy it but it’s dependent on my mindset.
Some like to dance or play team sports and that is certainly better than going to a hot stuffy room full of machines that reduce you into various muscles and simple movements.
My recommendation is a mixture of meaningful activities. Some form of awareness development and exploration like a Feldenkrais Method, Awareness Through movement class is a good start. I also believe walking or running (if enjoyable) is essential to get some of those positive biochemicals released. Strength training, if done intelligently and with interest can be helpful as well. The most important part is the social one. Having social interaction is usually beneficial for health and longevity so dancing, team sports or group activities can be wonderful. Of course if you need some time for yourself, a walk alone in the woods can be the best thing.
Wishing all my readers meaningful movement and happy steps.