This past weekend, I tried out my new snowshoes. Saturday was a glorious day in the Berkshires – I didn't even need my big arctic coat! It didn’t take long before my heart was pumping right along with my arms, and it was fun to breathe in air that didn't freeze my lungs on its way in...
As I tried out different strides and worked my way around to a pace that worked for both my heart AND my hips, I thought about additional benefits this activity provides and realized that since this was something I'd never done before, it's new learning. That means it's good for my brain. And then I took that one step further and realized that I was out in nature, enjoying a physical activity, in company with a like-minded person. Cool. That covers several of the recommendations made in Dr. Mark Hyman's docuseries (as well as my own research) on how to keep your brain healthy. Want to learn a couple of small steps that you can take right away to ward off dementia and improve your own brain health?
Structural plasticity is when the brain changes its physical structure or reorganizes itself through new learning. And this new learning doesn’t have to be something as big as learning how to play the guitar or studying advanced computer software. New pathways can be made by doing something like trying a different physical activity. Let’s say that you enjoy riding your stationary bike in the winter to keep fit, or working with weights. So, perhaps you can pick up an inexpensive pair of snowshoes or cross-country skis and learn how to do that without falling on your butt or crashing into ponds, etc. 😊 That is definitely new learning as well as aerobic exercise, which are both good for your brain.
How about meditation? Are you an experienced meditator? Would you like to learn a new type of meditation or begin with a simple twelve minute a day meditation?
Prestigious medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Health, Harvard Medical School, and Carnegie Mellon University have all reported on the many health benefits of meditation.
Big, successful companies like Google, Target, Apple, Nike, and Procter & Gamble offer structured meditation programs for executives and encourage employees at all levels to meditate, because people are less stressed and more productive when they meditate.
Well, there is now quite a bit of scientific evidence that aside from all the health benefits of returning your body to homeostasis and reducing stress hormones, your brain also has a chance to do some housecleaning when you meditate.
As we go about our busy daily lives, most of us are juggling tons of tasks at once. Our amazing brains can help us do that because they are bigger than Google. But, unlike Google, our minds become stressed with too many things going on, and that, in turn, makes it hard to concentrate or to get anything done completely.
In one study from Harvard, they measured changes in the size, structure and thickness of the brain in those who meditate regularly, compared to those who don’t. Their conclusion: “Our initial results suggest that meditation may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing.”
These guys also found that the meditators had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making. In fact, in this study, they found that 50 year old meditators had as much grey matter in the frontal cortex as 25 year olds. That’s certainly good news for us Baby Boomers!
More studies have shown that meditation increases activity of the anti-aging enzyme telomerase, which keeps telomere length long, thus keeping our brain functioning as well as it did when we were younger. Yippee!
The simple meditation practice that was most mentioned in all the studies I read is the one that I love to both practice and teach. It’s called Kirtan Kryia, and is part of the Kundalini Yoga tradition. It’s short and sweet, which makes it perfect for those of us in the Western world who don’t have time for anything else…
Best of Health,