It wasn’t so long ago that the aging brain was considered a done deal.
It wasn’t so long ago that the aging brain was considered a done deal. The scientific community told us that with aging, the capacity of our brain diminished, and once that happened, there wasn’t much we could do about it. ‘Use it or lose it’ was applied not only to the size of our brain, but also to our ability to learn as we grow older.
Luckily, the last few decades have turned that kind of thinking on it’s head. There is still evidence that the aging brain does get smaller, but that shrinkage does not necessarily have to include diminished capacity of the brain. Essentially, it is the connections in the brain that matter, and not so much it’s size.
Psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, and psychologist David Alter, PhD, have both spent decades in the field of neuroscience and neuropsychology as part of their clinical practices. They have gathered their collective experience and wisdom and written Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom (Touchstone, September 2015). Many of the keys to keeping your brain young lie in how you use your mind; flexibility, optimism, curiosity and empathy each have their own chapter. Nutrition and quality rest also appear to be vitally important.
The first key that is presented, however, has to do with keeping our bodies moving in order to keep our brains, in their words, “bigger, faster, and stronger.” They present evidence that shows movement helps your brain grow bigger, makes you happier, protects your memory, and increase connections in your brain.
They emphasize that the best time to start exercising is ‘right now’, and that if you already exercise, do everything in your power to keep moving throughout your life. They present an elegant model for looking at movement in your life as if it were a symphony:
The First Movement: Andante
Andante directs a musician to play at a moderately slow pace. Emmons and Alter translate this into ‘just move’. The simplicity of this idea is compelling. With recent evidence on how sitting is harmful to your health, they direct that if you are sitting, simply stand. Research suggests that standing more times throughout the day is better than standing up many times in succession. Walking is a simple directive as well; walk more, move more. Don’t think of it as exercise, just bring more movement into your daily life.
The Second Movement: Adagio
Adagio brings in the idea of moving mindfully. They suggest bringing a practice that allows you to focus your awareness on your movement, your breath, and the combination of the two. More than the specific type of movement, (although they do suggest Yoga and Tai Chi as great starting points), they offer the idea that bringing presence into your movement is what matters most.
The Third Movement: Allegro
An allegro directive is one that is ‘fast, quick and bright’. They suggest that this type of movement is what most people think of as exercise. The two types of exercise showing the most promise for brain health are interval training, which combines steady state movement with short bursts of higher intensity mixed throughout, and progressive resistance training, which means incorporating full body strength training and gradually increasing the resistance over time.
The metaphor of moving your body as if it were a symphony creates a lovely picture for bringing more movement into the rhythm of daily life. Keeping your body strong and fit correlates with keeping your brain youthful and bright. Now that’s my kind of music.