Tangents on Advancing Mind & Body (Part II) — Mind Games and Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to form, organize, and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning experiences or following injury.

Synaptic Connections: the site of transmission of electric nerve impulses between two nerve cells (neurons) or between a neuron and a gland or muscle (effector).

While the longevity benefits of aerobic exercise such as improved heart function, boosting the immune system, and improvements to mood and mental health are well published, it’s neurological “improving mental health and well-being” have only recently been documented. Research by David Raichlen and Gene Alexander published in the January 2020 edition of Scientific American hypothesized that aerobic exercise also improves cognitive function, slows down age-related cognitive decline, and may even be used as a therapy to slow the accelerated decline that we see in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

This and a number of other studies I’ve examined on this subject more often than not focus around the same question: does aerobic exercise increase neuroplasticity by developing new neurons? While the traditional belief has always been that adult brains are incapable of creating new neurons as we age, studies like these are now proving that exercise may be one of the keys to creating neurons as we get older. In case we’re in need of a recap, neurons are nerve cells that specialize in transmitting information around the body, and they’re the building blocks of our nervous system. The neurons that we’re going to be discussing sit in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for learning, emotions, and storing memories. Therefore, with the brain creating more neurons, cognitive function should improve as a result of increased neuroplasticity.

Now my favourite part about these studies is that they force the researcher to look back at evolutionary traits to examine how aerobic exercise has benefitted the human brain for millions of years. For the purpose of increasing neuroplasticity, there are two important evolutionary changes that tie aerobic exercise to brain function. These are a) hominins evolving to stand upright (bipedal) instead of on all fours (quadrupedal), and b) hominins changing their way of life to incorporate more aerobic exercise as a result of their new bipedal position.

Now in terms of human ancestors adapting to life on two feet, here’s the most important question: did humans need more coordination and synaptic connections in the brain to walk on two feet instead of four?

Well, the answer is a huge yes and here’s why — when we evolved to be bipedal, the brain needed to work harder and develop more connections to account for the times when our bodies are balanced on one limb rather than two or more like other apes. For us to be able to do this, our brains need to coordinate a massive amount of information, while making adjustments to muscle activity throughout the body. Raichlen and Alexander stated in their research that our brains may be more cognitively challenged than our ancestors simply because we are bipedal.

When hominins started to stand upright, they also changed their lifestyles to include more aerobic demands. About two million years ago, at least one group of ancestral humans began hunting and gathering in a new way that involved gathering plant foods from afar (10–20km). in order for the group to do this effectively, they needed to adopt expert-level navigation skills to find food from afar and remember their way home. Cognitive demands like spatial navigation, for example, rely on the hippocampus, which tends to atrophy (waste away) with age.

Your New Religion: Cognitively Engaged Exercise

In the studies examined, the researchers also made a very important distinction between groups — they analyze the effects of both aerobic exercise and what they call “cognitively engaged exercise”. This allows them to potentially prove a two-fold hypothesis; not only can they explore the increased neuroplasticity of those who are challenged aerobically, but they can also control for differences in brain activity between the aerobic and cognitively engaged aerobic groups.

Cognitively engaged exercise has been a focus of mine for the past year or so, as it’s exercise that challenges the brain similarly to the multitasking abilities needed to be adopted by our ancestors. For example, if running on a treadmill is aerobic exercise, then running outside is cognitively engaged aerobic exercise. While they both challenge the aerobic capacity of the athlete, running outside requires navigation, increased decision making, and awareness of the terrain is essential at all times to avoid falling down.

Scuba diving is another example of cognitively engaging exercise, although only moderately aerobic for the most part. Since the demands underwater are so evenly balanced between cognitive and aerobic, you’d be surprised to learn how many of your typical “jock” types find putting all of the skills together really hard. To further emphasize this, at any given time on a dive, the group leader has to be able to balance communicating with the group and constantly observing divers to avoid unsafe situations with moving the legs to propel forward or backwards, and controlling breathing to maintain position in the water all while staying aware of the surroundings and navigating back to the boat.

There are two additional studies worth noting for their unique contributions to increasing neuroplasticity, as they both further distill the difference between simple aerobic versus cognitively engaged exercise. At the Centre for Regenerative Therapies in Dresden, Germany, two groups of mice were studied to look for increases in neuroplasticity — one group exercising aerobically, and the other aerobically with cognitive demand. Another study by Raichlen at the University of Southern California documented cross country runners and healthy adults in two groups to analyse differences that outdoor trails versus more sedentary exercise have on brain function. Both of these found that exercise alone was good enough for the hippocampus, but exercise and cognitive demand was ever better for increasing neuroplasticity and creating new neurons. As it turns out, training with higher cognitive demand increased connectivity among brain regions associated with executive cognitive functions.

Your Move

Based on everything covered above, hopefully you’ll see that it’s worth it and even essential to adapt our exercises to increase the cognitive demands. This can be done by changing both the types of exercise we do as well as the various exercises and movements we perform. As was demonstrated by the study at USC, simply running on a trail instead of a treadmill is one of many easy ways we could all change up the way we exercise to include a higher cognitive demand. However, if you want to incorporate more cognitively demanding exercise without changing the terrain, carving out some time during workouts for some special exercises is the easiest way to start.

This is a big part of the reason I like to change up the types of exercise I do every week. It’s almost like confusing certain muscles to make them think they’re getting a break, while working the muscles around them to focus more on stability, coordination, and range of motion. For example, one of my favourite ways to warm up currently is with a few rounds of Turkish Getup. I’ve found through introducing more exercises like this to my routines that the increased coordination and thinking required allows additional use of problem solving skills and managing a task-loaded mind. The vast majority of exercises I do to task load the mind involve either a box to jump on or a set of ladders to move through. I’ve even began more recently combining some of the more advanced box jumps and ladder exercises into a routine so that I can even have a whole session of cognitively engaging exercises on a lighter day. Here are a few examples of cognitively engaging exercises that I recommend:

Seated Box Jump: Using a 30–50’ box that’s used for standard box jumps, add in a small box in front of the taller one. Instead of starting in a standing position, starting this motion seated.

Bulgarian Split Jumps: Same position as Bulgarian split squats, but with a twist. Instead of resting at the top of the lunge, add a jump and make sure to land on the same foot. Do five on each side and raise the reps as you grow comfort

BONUS Move for Yogis — Boat to Chair Pose: The video attached shows coming from boat post to chair by rocking back and forth a few times. Instead of rocking back and forth at all, try snapping the feet straight into position and in one floating motion, transfer your weight forwards up into chair. Use a hand at the beginning to learn the motion, but make sure to build to floating from one position to the other.

Your move, but this time, make a it a more cognitively demanding one!