Exercise has many health benefits, including keeping the brain alive and adaptive.
Aerobic exercise, for one, aids the formation of new blood vessels, thus improving brain circulation, function and health.
Strength and balance training have neural and chemical adaptive possibilities such as neuroplasticity (neural-pathway adaption) and neurogenesis (nerve-cell generation).
Conceptualize the brain as a series of connected roads. Well travelled roads are the movement patterns you repeatedly use. Your brain, through years of aberrant loading patterns, learns to use muscles in particular ways. With conscious thought during balance and strength-training exercises, you can carve new patterns.
Categorize your "neuro-training goals" into two camps.
First, to learn new motion. And second, to perform familiar movements using closer-to-biomechanically ideal loading patterns. For example, have you been told to feel a squat in your bum, only to feel the work in your hip flexors?
Level 1: Promote neuroplasticity
1. When it comes to cardio, replace mindless, forward-moving activities with reactive, multidirectional sports (such as tennis) or dance, and incorporate sideways and backward running into workouts.
2. Always include at least one exercise that challenges balance, co-ordination or reactivity.
Here are some examples.
Clock taps: Stand on your left leg in the middle of an imaginary clock, right knee up. Engage your left bum. A partner calls out a number. Tap your right foot to the corresponding number on the clock. If you don't have a partner, just tap all the numbers on the clock.
Clock lunges: Make the above a strength exercise by lunging (rather than tapping) the number.
3. Research which muscles should be engaged. If you exhibit faulty loading or recruitment patterns, work on fixing the pattern. For example, use tactile feedback by placing your hand on the muscle that should be working.
4. Challenge your vision during exercise. Wear sunglasses, turn your head and, when safe, close your eyes. Decreasing visual feedback will force your body to rely on other neural feedback.
5. Use music. React to audio cues (a beep means you balance on one leg etc.) or time motions to music (as with aerobics or dance).
Level 2: Promote neurogenesis
Incorporate higher-level problem-solving and, more importantly, verbal expression of the problem. As a colleague, Lawrence Biscontini, says, promote neurogenesis by using your "mouth, mind and movement."
Let's use the clock lunge as an example. One person calls out the number on the clock (let's say 7 p.m.). The "doer" translates it into military time and says "nineteen hundred hours" while simultaneously lunging to the corresponding number on their imaginary clock.
Here are some other examples.
Say the results of a brain teaser: Example, count down (out loud) in sets of a prescribed number. For 13 burpees, say the numbers backward – in sets of seven – starting at 101. For 12 lunges say months backward (December to January).
Play the "exercise association" game: Pick two exercises – let's say squats and burpees. Associate the first with one thing (squats with movies) and the other with another thing (burpees with TV shows). If a movie is called, the "doer" squats; for a TV show, the "doer" does a burpee.
As an added challenge, as the "doer" completes the exercise he or she says something they associate with the category – say, an actor in the movie.
Be creative. Do three exercises. Or switch the categories. Try vegetables or flowers.
Challenge memory: For example, build a grocery list. Imagine your circuit is lunges, push-ups and pull-ups. First, lunge and say "apples." While doing push-ups say "apples and grapes." When doing pull-ups, say "apples, grapes, chicken." During the second round of lunges say "apples, grapes, chicken and milk." And so on.
Your health – including your brain's health – is an aggregate of small choices. Your movement habits are like grooves in a record player: The more frequently your past self moved – or didn't move – a particular way, the deeper the groove will be.
Be patient and, more importantly, be consistent. Work toward understanding motion as a daily non-negotiable – such as brushing your teeth.