Strengthen the Muscle Between Your Ears

Sweat Smarts

Nov 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

   Photo: Illustration by Jonathon Carlson

1. Imagine standing on an invisible rope, left foot in front of the right and hands to either side. Shift all your weight back to the right leg, keeping it slightly bent, extend it to the left side, then extend it behind you and place it behind the right leg. 2. Repeat with the right leg and continue taking slow steps backward along a straight line for ten steps. ADVANCED: As you proceed backward, keep your yese closed.

CARDIOVASCULAR WORKOUTS—running, swimming, biking, etc.—help more blood and oxygen reach every fold, synapse, and cell of your brain, thus improving the organ's ability to run smoothly. But keeping your brain well oiled isn't the same as increasing its capacity to learn and grow, and it wasn't until recently that neurologists grasped how exercise can affect the very building blocks of the spaghetti inside your head.

In 1997, researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris discovered that exercising muscles stimulated the growth of brain axons—branches on each nerve cell that transmit information to other neurons. And more axons means more smarts. Subsequent studies found that exercise also triggers neurogenesis (new cell growth in the brain), which improves learning. Just last June, researchers at the University of California-Irvine's Institute for Brain Aging published a report showing how exercise in rats increased levels of neurotrophins, proteins that stimulate the growth of new nerve cells in the part of the brain that deals with learning and memory.

1. Stand with your weight on your left leg,squatting slightly, with your right leg behind you and your toes just touching the floor. 2. Swing your right leg out in front of you. With your knee bent, raise your thigh parallel to the ground. 3. Hold that position for the 10 seconds, then straighten your leg and crouch on the left as low as you can and hold that position for 10 seconds. 4. Stand on both feet. 5. Repeat the excercise with the other leg, ADVANCED: Try holding the poses for longer durations.
Outdoor athletes aren't rats, of course, but Restak stresses that certain types of regimens can target areas of your gray matter that improve performance. "Anything you do that requires coordination tests the cerebellum," the area of the brain that controls balance, dexterity, and planning. "And unlike muscles, it doesn't wear out. It improves the more we challenge it."

To give it that challenge, you'll want to learn some basic tai chi, the ancient slow-motion martial arts practice. Restak recommends tai chi because it requires balance and leg strength, which arouse the portion of the cerebellum that controls balance and coordination. By keeping this area stimulated, you can develop stronger mental agility and promote synergy between your brain and muscles. With practice over time, this can help you navigate a tough set of rapids or negotiate swift backcountry turns. Tai chi classes are widely available, but to get yourself started, try adding the two simple exercises shown at left and above before or after your endurance and strength workouts.

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