I have been active my entire life. My parents put me in gymnastics at the age of three and I never looked back. For me, getting a good work out in was always part of my schedule. There have been periods when my workouts went minimal; combat deployments and Army commitments come to mind. Nothing cleared my head the way a good run did. Regardless of my schedule and responsibilities, exercise took a priority at least 5 days a week. If I went too many days without it, I felt “off”. Now I know why.
My passion for exercise is what drew me back to school after my 11 year hiatus in the Army. Instead of becoming another master of Exercise Physiology, I wanted to explore the Psychological aspect of it. This semester in particular has been given me a lot of clarity in where I want to go with my journey. I love exercise, and I am fascinated by brains. Right now, I am not only taking a Neurophysiology course, but also Cognition and Exercise Across the Lifespan. They complement each other perfectly. I have studied psychological benefits of exercise, but now I get to look at studies on actual changes that occur in the brain with exercise. Brace yourselves.
When we are born, our brains are only 25% of the size that they will be when we reach adulthood (20-25 years of age). Nutrition, exercise, education, and exposure make a HUGE impact on how our brains develop over that time. Yes, there have been studies that show that high fit children perform better on tasks involving attention and inhibition, scholastic exams, general executive function, and even creativity than their lower-fit counterparts. One study focused on children diagnosed with ADHD. After a 1 year team and individual exercise intervention, the experimental group experienced improved sport competence, social communication, self-esteem, attention span, ability to follow instructions, listening and waiting skills, improved behavior in the classroom, and reduced anxiety. How’s that for a benefit?
The beauty of non-human trials is that it allows researchers to analyze the actual brain tissue of subjects post-experiment. One of my favorite studies was done in 1990 by Black et al. showing development in the cerebellum with exercise. The cerebellum, aka “little brain”, is in the lower part of the hindbrain and is best known for its role in coordination and balance. Rats were put into 4 different groups and studied for 30 days; acrobatic, forced exercise, voluntary exercise, and inactive control. The rats in the acrobatic group were given tasks of increased complexity throughout the study which culminated with a very difficult obstacle course including loosely suspended ropes and pencil-wide dowels. Let me mention, that at the beginning of the study, these rats had a rough time crossing a wide stable platform, and by the end, they were ready for Cirque du Soleil. The two exercise groups were given wheels to run on, and the inactive control were kept sedentary. At the end of the study, they found that the acrobatic rats experienced synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses between neurons; this means that there are more connections for communication) in the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum. Both exercise groups experienced angiogenesis (growth of new blood vessels from preexisting ones; this indicates improved blood flow) in the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum.
The findings of this study were slightly off, because they did not realize that the rats in the acrobatic group were conditioned within five of the fitness domains to include coordination, agility, balance, accuracy, and flexibility. The exercise groups, on the other hand, were conditioning cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, and speed. What’s the point, you ask? This is why I love CrossFit. Because it specializes in not specializing, we get the benefits of all 10 fitness domains!
Spending the time to perfect those Olympic lifts, arduously going through muscle up progression, struggling with pistols, learning how to climb a rope, and walking on your hands are doing so much more than just helping you get super strong. By working on those areas where you are least comfortable, and like me, down right clumsy, you are helping to rewire your brain! Of course, there are several other fitness options that can have these benefits such as rock climbing, gymnastics, walking the slack line, surfing, and snowboarding just to name a few. The high intensity aspect of CrossFit gets the oxygen-rich blood to your brain, and if you’re Zoning, you’re keeping the glucose as a steady source of fuel. This is why we feel so much better and think so much clearer when we adopt the CrossFit prescription. We are giving our brain its optimum environment to thrive!
Keep up the good WOD!
Stay tuned for the next blog. Could it be executive function, or maybe the hippocampus (memory)?