Our big, wonderful brains. Arguably what makes us distinct as humans. We like to think that our brains developed in order to give us the ability to think and to create- and therefore give us the advantage that allowed us to develop language, art and civilization.
But this is wrong.
Scientist Daniel Wolpert puts it best: “We have a brain for one reason only: to produce adaptable and complex movements.”
The largest amount of data coming into your brain at any given moment is coming from the musculoskeletal system and the smooth muscle of other organ systems like the digestive system. Mechanoreceptors in every joint, every muscle, every tendon of your body are constantly telling your brain about where your body, and each part of it, is in space, something we call ‘proprioception.”
This information comes in to the primary somatosensory cortex- a strip of the neocortex that runs roughly from the top of your ear to the apex of your skull on both sides. It is organized in a way that it reflects perfectly how the body itself is organized (the part that receives information from the hand is next to the part that receives information from the lower arm) and its weighted according to where we have the most nerve endings/receive the most sensory input (the areas receiving information from the hands, feet, lips and genitalia for example are much bigger than the areas receiving information from the low back or the buttocks.)
Directly in front of the primary somatosensory cortex is the primary motor cortex- it gets the information about where your body is in space from the primary somatosensory cortex and then uses that information to decide which motor pattern to use. In order to reach for a glass of water, your brain needs to first know where your hand, arm, elbow and shoulder are so that it can tell those muscles and joints exactly how much to move and in what directs in order to reach out and grasp that glass of water.
This all happens so quickly, so eloquently, so seamlessly that though we can create robots that can master the game of chess, they can’t move the pieces around the board as deftly as even a child can.
So what does this mean for our brains and brain health?
Well, to begin with, your brain works much like your muscles- if you use them, they get stronger. And if you don’t they get weaker and less useful. As we move, we get stronger (and smarter) because the movement of our bodies and the subsequent firing of neurons that that requires causes the release of a chemical called BDNF- brain derived neurotrophic factor, or as one author put it “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Its whole purpose is to stimulate growth of brain cells- not just in the parts of the brain most concerned with movement- but throughout the entire organ.
In a formal literature review, researcher Frank W. Booth showed that lack of movement was a factor in over 20 different chronic diseases. But even more poignantly, he wrote in his review “[s]edentary lifestyle is associated with lower cognitive skills.” Further studies showed that cognitive skills do not decline simply because we get older, they decline because we move less.
Not only is movement a key piece of preventing and addressing dementia and Alzheimer’s, but it has also been shown to be as effective as SSRIs in treatment of depression, with longer lasting benefits and less side effects too.
In short, you need to move to have and keep a healthy, keen brain throughout your life.
Exercise is definitely part of this, but it is only a part. We generally think of exercise as any movement we do in order to stay healthy and fit. Movement is broader than this. Movement is anything that changes the loads on your cells and tissues. A simple changing of the load on your muscles will cause a change in the feedback an embedded mechanoreceptor will give the brain about where that muscle is in space. Therefore movement can be as simple as changing the focus of your eyes from near distance to far, getting goosebumps from a chill in the air, getting up from being seated on the floor, or even evacuating your bowels- there is a reason we call it a ‘bowel movement‘ and not a bowel exercise.
Movement should happen throughout that day, all day long, providing plenty of input to the brain and stimulus for new neuronal growth. In contrast, when we spend 8, 10 or 12 hours a day being sedentary, sitting in a chair, and then go to the gym for an hour, we may get enough exercise to keep our waistline from expanding, but we are not getting enough of the movement we really need keep our brains happy and healthy.
The best part about having a movement practice as opposed to ‘exercising’ is that it can be much easier to fit into what is probably already a busy life. Find errands you can do by walking instead of in the car. Growing a vegetable garden can provide more nourishment than than just from the food alone. Moving your positions through the day from standing to sitting on the floor and back again can provide plenty of novel movement and loads for your body. Working in the kitchen to cook can provide a nourishing meal and nourishing movement at the same time. Play with your kids on the playground instead of sitting on the bench and starring at your phone while they play. Walk the dog in the evenings instead of watching another hour of TV. Its not hard: walk, play, crawl, hike, lifting, bend, run, swing, hang- pretty much do anything but sit and watch TV or zone out in front of screen.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. But now, for the sake of your brain health, please get out there and move!