The Circle City is gearing up to watch the 100th running of the Indy 500, and the event that has been coined “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is truly inspiring. Like most spectators, I often imagine what it would be like to steer the wheel of a race car in this world-renowned race.
In rectospect, when I imagine myself participating in a new sport…that’s where it stays… in my imagination. I often live vicariously through other athletes… especially at Olympic time, for a few fleeting minutes. Over the years, I have found myself encouraging my children to try a new sport, but have stayed on the sidelines myself.
As a kid I tried all kinds of sports and physical challenges (remember climbing that big tree or jumping that creek?). But parenthood has made me more of a spectator than a participator. I tend to stick to my familiar running and workouts, and that could be causing me to miss out on challenging my brain.
Never Too Old to Learn a New Trick
Studies show learning a new sport or a physical activity in midlife such as juggling, a new dance step, or golfing promotes many benefits to the brain’s health, especially the motor cortex region. The motor cortex is involved in voluntary movement control as well as movement planning and execution. This area of the brain has not been studied as well in its overall brain health involvement.
Most of the research is focused on other areas of the brain engaged in memory and cognition such as, the hippocampus. Now there is compelling research on the motor cortex in humans and animals that experts believe may improve brain health and possibly help prevent and treat brain disorders such as multiple sclerosis, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The 3 top benefits to the motor cortex with learning a new physical skill are:
1). Promotes neurogenesis- new brain cell growth. Studies have shown, people who learn a new physical skill increase their volume of their motor cortex, by growing new brain cells.
2). Improves brain plasticity- the ability for the brain to change, grow or restructure neurons (nerve cells).
3). Increases myelination- insulation of nerve cell axons. Nerve cell axons send messages to other nerve cells. The axons are insulated in a protective lipid sheath called myelin. Myelin is crucial for axons in the brain and spinal cord to conduct neural activity with proper speed and fluency. Increase myelination has been shown in a 2014 study involving mice learning a new motor skill. Experts do not known yet if this occurs in humans, but feel the replication of results will be promising (The New York Times, Well Blog by Gretchen Reynolds posted on 3/2/2016, Learning a New Sport May Be Good for the Brain).
So the brain is not as static in growth as we thought. It has the lifelong ability to grow, change and regenerate as long as you make the effort. …Now, where do I sign up for those Krav Maga lessons?