Physical activity and mental sports are considered to be some of the best ways to have a young and effective brain. This is an ongoing theme in this blog. For further reading I suggest reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
My childhood fallacy
When I was a child, learning was easy for me and sports were hard. This is a very common predisposition. Unfortunately, as a child, I was not exposed to the abundance of scientific information available today. I had an unfortunate tendency to get sick quite often. I tried learned things and played chess, and I used every chance to avoid any physical activity. At some point, I even honestly believed in medieval body vs spirit dichotomy.
By changing the climate, and growing up, I became very healthy, yet I could not force myself to do any sports since I simply hated them. When I was in the university I finally understood that I really hate running and jumping, but actually love yoga and dancing, swimming and weightlifting. I know that sports are really good for me, yet I cannot fully shake off the way I viewed sports as a child.
For the last 20 years, I am balancing my attempts to do the sports I like with my childhood fallacy. On average twice a year I quit sports and start again. Some people are blessed with athletic attitude, while others struggle like me. If reading a post like this one will help you go to the gym or taking a yoga course, or showing more interest in mental sports, I think writing it was worthwhile.
The number one way to keep your brain sharp
Arguably physical activity is the best way to keep your brain sharp, beating mental sports and intellectual activity. In some recent studies, 90% of people who do virtually no physical activity were compared to 10% of the people who do moderate or high physical activity. When the brains were studied using fMRI, the people who do physical activity had brains on average 10 years younger. Moreover, the test was repeated 5 years later, showing that physically active people had smaller degradation in cognitive performance over time.
The participants of this particular study were over 65 years old. It is easy to do sports when you are young and healthy, have no children and actually have time for yourself, and your physical activity makes you admired by your peers. I guess most of the young people do practice sports. During our 30th and 40th, we have very little time for ourselves and it becomes important to prioritize sports over other important things. It gets even harder to do sports when we are overweight and not physically fit. As our body image slips further and further from what we were in our 20s, sports get both more important and harder to do. As a motivational force, it is important to understand the effect of sports on well-being: 4 hours of practice per week wll add 10 good years to your life. When prioritizing and building our schedules this is not something to ignore.
As a bonus, you are welcome to read this article about the benefits of swimming.
Yoga and meditation
Yoga and meditation often start as a physical exercise aimed to improve the flexibility or breathing, but after a couple of years, it becomes something very different. Not only the flexible body is healthier, and breathing improves the flow of oxygen to the brain, reduced level of stress allows taking more complex challenges and seeking self-actualization. Yoga also improves the positive thinking capabilities, changing the brain’s physiology. The effects of yoga on personal feeling are similar to the “rest and digest” effects, only without the added body weight. You may choose to accept or ignore the spiritual aspects: the simple change in the mental and physical well-being are sufficient to take yoga seriously.
When my kids were born I lost a lot of time I used to spend on myself. From all the things I needed to prioritize out of my life, I miss yoga and meditation the most. Once my kids will become sufficiently independent, I definitely will resume this activity stream.
There is such as thing as memory sports. If you can memorize and recall a lot of information, this gives you near supernatural activity. Recently a guy from New-Zealand memorized French dictionary so well that he became a French scrabble champion – yet he did not learn to speak French. You can even fake your way as a sports fan, by memorizing the relevant statistics.
There are several “gyms” and clubs where you can specifically practice for memory championship, learning several different disciplines. If you are a reader of this blog, most of the memory techniques should be pretty familiar to you. Sportsmen take these techniques to a different level by hundreds of hours of focused and effective practice before each tournament.
You may prefer more traditional chess or bridge or go games to memory sports. In each case, you practice a different set of mental abilities. These games are considered to be much more effective than the specialized brain gyms e.g. Luminosity since you use different brain capabilities.
The bond between the mind the body is strong. If you can visualize your body and memorize the feel in your body, you can use that feel to remember things. There are several methods of doing this: imagining yourself physically working or dancing with the information you want to remember, immersing into a foreign environment, tying specific pieces of information to specific body parts, creating and playing a game… Being mindful of your body you improve your ability to visualize.
Dancing is an interesting and fun way to improve your life. Professional dancers do not get dizzy – which is very important when we need to traverse memory palaces at high speed. Visualizing movements improves muscle memory. The extra effort applied by cerebellum increases the ability to get into highly productive “flow” state.
If sports are not an integrated part of our daily routine, it is easy to prioritize other activities over sports. It is even easier to do that when we get sick, become super-busy or suffer a trauma. Reintroducing sports back into our lives is hard, but it is worth to make the extra effort.