Exercise builds your muscles, and that’s a good thing. You need muscle mass to optimize your metabolism, balance your hormones, and maintain good health.
But exercise should also be designed to improve your brain.
In my recent lecture for the Princeton Adult School, I described two different aspects of exercise. One aspect of exercise I called physiological. That refers to the fact that exercise leads to quantifiable gains in muscle bulk, cardiac strength, and lung capacity. Vital health goals.
A second aspect of exercise I called movement skill development. Movement skill development means learning something new: the fox trot, fly fishing, knitting, t’ai ch’i, or whatever.
I’ve been a devotee of movement skill development ever since my days studying dance. I could feel in my bones (and nervous system) that there was something important about it. Something important that was being missed by generations of fitness gurus going back to Jane Fonda. As a doctor of chiropractic, I’ve tried to inspire my patients to learn something new about their bodies and the way they move. There’s a lot more to exercise than mindlessly ticking off the minutes on the treadmill.
Now scientific research is catching up in its understanding of the value of movement skill development.
One recent study looked at cognitive health (or its opposite – dementia) in seniors who exercised.
Anyone can guess that the seniors who exercised were less likely to experience cognitive decline than senior slackers. But, surprisingly, maintaining mental sharpness did not correlate with muscle strength. Seniors with loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia) were not more likely to experience dementia than seniors who had maintained good muscle mass.
The benefits of exercise weren’t based on brute muscle power – they were occurring through an entirely different mechanism.
The authors of the study — being prudent, cautious scientists — declined to speculate about the other reasons that exercise could maintain mental sharpness. But that doesn’t stop me from speculating. It was movement skills development – the cognitive component of exercise – that protected people’s brains.
Here’s another example. Most investigators are now convinced that studying t’ai ch’i reduces the chance of falling. Why? One of my colleagues, a physiatrist who’s an expert on osteoporosis and fragility fractures, suggests it’s because a t’ai ch’i student repeatedly shifts the weight from one foot to the other while lifting the leg knee-high or higher. That sounds like an important movement skill to practice – but not only because it builds muscle strength in specific muscle groups. It’s a novel brain challenge too.