I originally shared this article on BreakingMuscle.com.
When you work with the nervous system, life gets better. Everything you care about - strength, flexibility, your mood, you name it - is governed by the nervous system. So if we want to live and move better, we ought to tap into it.
Although we know exercise is good for your brain, it is less clear what type of exercise is most beneficial. Aerobic exercise was presumed to be the gold standard for a long time, but mounting evidence points to similar benefit from both anaerobic exercise, such as resistance training, and mindfulness-based training, such as yoga or Tai Chi.1,2 It seems like a wide variety of activity is a safe bet.
Based on the available literature, there are four main characteristics that optimize our neural function in exercise:
- Focused attention
- Proprioceptive demand
- Subtle variation
- Slow movement
Let’s take a peek at each one.
1. Focused Attention
As a society, we’re largely distracted from our bodies and our movements. Even when we do go to the gym, TV monitors and music compete for the attention of our nervous system, much to the detriment of our movement. Evidence suggests that when we are distracted by external stimuli, we actually diminish our performance.3 If you need to blast pump-up jams every time you hit the gym, you may be leaving gains on the table by decreasing your motor control.
Simply put: distracted movement is sloppy movement. When we’re learning new movements or actively seeking improvement, it helps to pay attention.
It’s a whole new experience to train with active focus. Next time you train, pay attention to what cues your body is actually giving you. Take the headphones out. Unplug. Tune in. These sensory cues are key to tapping into the brain-body conversation. When we focus on the task at hand, we see huge increases in performance.
2. Proprioceptive Demand
Proprioception is the body’s ability to identify where it is in space and sense the effort required in a particular movement. It’s closely linked to our sense of balance. Mounting evidence demonstrates that when we challenge our proprioceptive system, we see major improvements in executive function, working memory, and psychological health.4 These activities, ranging from tree climbing to dance, force our brains to kick into high gear.
Proprioceptively demanding activities challenge us in novel situations. Rather than the rote movements of traditional cardio and strength training exercise, these new movements provide a greater challenge to use your mind and lay down new neural connections.
How do we tap into this? Try something new! Get out of your training comfort zone. You might incorporate outdoor or ground-based movement (a la MovNat or Animal Flow), take up a dance class, or get in some sparring. We need to incorporate variety in our training, not for the nonsense concept of “muscle confusion,” but for brain engagement.
3. Subtle Variation
Many of the benefits of exercise stem from neuroplastic changes, which are changes in how your neurons interact with each other. Task complexity appears to promote these changes.5More so than repetition, variation facilitates the learning process and lights up our brain-body connection.
When you’re exploring a new movement, incorporate subtle purposeful variations. Explore how changes in grip width influence your deadlift. See if where you look changes the difficulty of a Turkish get up. These subtle variations bring in a whole new set of sensory-motor cues for the brain to process, and facilitate learning new skills. And of course, incorporating conscious variety can also help break up the monotony of your training routine.
4. Slow Movement
I’ve talked about the power of slow movement before. When we slow things down, we’re able to take in much more bodily feedback. This lets us get a visceral feel for the quality of our movement. This can play a crucial role as we learn new movements, which as we have seen is critical to the neuroplastic process.
Your Brain On Movement
Exercise literally changes the structure and function of your brain. To make the most of your inherent neuroplasticity, work slowly with focused attention, through challenging movements in novel situations. Explore a wide range of movement options to fire up your nervous system. Add these proven methods to incorporate more brain candy into your training.
Curious to explore this in your own practice? Looking for a simple way to strengthen the mind-body connection for more mobility, more strength, and more ease? Click here for my free access to my neuromuscular warmup.
1. Gothe N et al., “The acute effects of yoga on executive function,” Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 10(2013): 488-498.
2. Yaguez L et al., “The effects on cognitive function of a movement-based intervention in patients with Alzheimer’s-type dementia: a pilot study,”International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 26(2011): 173-181.
3. Johansen-Berg H & Matthews PM. “Attention to movement modulates activity in sensory-motor areas, including primary motor cortex,” Experimental Brain Research 142(2002):13-24.
4. Alloway RG & Alloway TP. “The working memory benefits of proprioceptively demanding training: a pilot study,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 120 (2015):766-775.
5. Carey JR, et al. “Neuroplasticity promoted by task complexity,” Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, 33(2005):24-31.