Guest post by Stephanie Orphanacos.
There is something you can do right now to dramatically impact the health of your brain. By doing this you can also boost your mood, increase your energy and improve your ability to focus. The effects are immediate and long-lasting and it doesn’t have to cost anything at all. You can do this on your own, with a friend or in a group. I am speaking about moving your body, getting active and including a physical regimen into your regular routine.
Let’s talk about brain development and some of the latest findings from neuroscience. We know that approximately seven weeks after conception, the first neural cells and synapses (bridges between these cells) begin to develop in the spinal cord. The fetus doesn’t even have an actual brain yet, just a brainstem at the top of his spine. But there is enough input that these early neural connections allow the fetus to make its first tiny movements. Although Mom cannot yet feel them, these early movements provide the fetus with on-going neural stimuli and sensory input that promote the development of the brain and other critical systems. Neural cells in the fetus are already developing into networks that are learning how to complete more and more complex tasks.
By the time the baby is born he has about a 100 billion brain cells. During a baby’s first years, researchers estimate that he or she will make about a million brain connections (synapses) every second. Think of the amount of activity that is going on in a child’s brain at this time. An infant’s brain experiences growth at a pace that will never again happen in his lifetime. Is it any wonder that a small child is so busy? Every time they move, they are stimulating these neurons and building new brain connections. It also explains why they sleep so well as their little bodies are constantly working out, not only from a physical growth perspective but also from a cognitive growth one.
As an adult, this process continues although at a slower rate. When we move our body, we stimulate oxygen flow to our brain cells. This enhances cell regeneration and keeps our brain cells and corresponding neural networks healthy and flexible so they are less likely to become damaged or susceptible to disease.
The research shows this is particularly true when we engage in aerobic exercise 3 times a week for approximately 30 minutes each time. You don’t have to go running for 30 minutes. You could dance, skip rope, enjoy a brisk walk with the dog or take a hike along along a hilly trail. Exercising in the outdoors also serves to enhance your experience and sets off other synaptic functions. Any time you can engage two or more of your senses in an activity, you help to strengthen and repair connections across different regions of your brain.
So, make movement fun! Listen to music while you walk, pick a beautiful autumn day for your hike in the hills or sing a song while you pick apples at the local orchard. Each of these pairings, like pairing a fine wine with your meal will make your experience more memorable and enjoyable. When you activate different brain regions, you perform some pretty complex task-coordination. This is the equivalent of mental gymnastics for your brain.
As we age we tend to slow down. When we slow down our cells become brittle and start to degenerate. This process may happen to each of us eventually. But why wouldn’t you want to delay it for as long as possible? So get busy! Take a walk, or a yoga class, dust off your bicycle or buy a new pair of skates. Enjoy the mood enhancing chemical release of those ‘feel good’ hormones, maintain and increase your cognitive abilities, protect your brain from degeneration and disease and enjoy your family and your memories! All you have to do is move!
Stephanie is a Counsellor and an Advocate for families who are a struggling to find the right services for their child with complex challenges.
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