Movement, Exercise, and the Brain with Dr. GA few weeks ago, we hosted an excellent Q&A session on Facebook about movement, exercise, and the brain. Movement specialist M.A. Greenstein, PhD, aka Dr. G, answered people’s questions and I think we all learned a lot! For those who missed the discussion and prefer to read it in transcript form, I’ve re-posted it here. You can find Dr. G’s website here. You might also be interested in an article she wrote for this blog, Tips for Growing Brains, Behaviors, and Ideas!

Question: What is the significance of movement variability in our daily life?

Dr. G’s Answer: If I understand your questions correctly, movement variability — meaning performing different kinds of movements at various times of day — is powerfully important for generation neuromuscular fluency and for developing wide range of spatial intelligence. Think of it in terms of adaptive function: the more ways you have to move, the more options you have in problem solving a movement challenge.

Question: Dr. G, I know I need to get moving. What’s a good beginning to exercise that will also benefit my brain?

Dr. G’s Answer: You’ve asked the million dollar question!!! As a movement specialist, I’d like ask, what do you like to do? What movement experiences have brought joy and a certain fulfillment? If no movement comes to mind, I suggest you pick something that has the 3 traits of Posit Science brain games that provide: Immediate Feedback, Scaffold the learning and change from easy to difficult, and provide Novel challenges along the way.

Walking is made for anyone who can get of bed, throw on their clothes and take a spin around the neighborhood. I have soft tissue injury (aging dancer’s body! oi vey!) so no running for me! Walking is my joy and my salvation!

Walking groups by the way have shown to boost our ability to choose to move! Grab a friend, start a group. Walk with others — find beautiful places to walk. Explore your neighborhood — its rooftops, its variety of trees. Walking and Talking together raises the high bar for attention and energy!!!! And we know walking in groups makes the social brain happy!

Follow-up Response: Wow! Thanks for wise counsel, Dr. G. I need to think about movement that has brought me joy. Those three traits are really insightful. I like the idea of walking with a friend or small group to get going quickly. Thanks again!

Question: Does the ability to learn specific physical movements and spatial intelligence decline to a great degree as we age?

Dr. G’s Answer: An important question! Let’s separate out the issue of learning and the ability to move to address this.

Learning can and should (for healthy aging purposes) continue throughout our life times. To learn new things we need novel challenge -…- Dr. Merzenich has discussed this on a number of occasions.

In order to learn new movement and keep spatial intelligence alive and fresh, we have to work harder as we age as areas of the brain — our attention networks and our balance — tend to diminish if not pushed with challenge and novelty.

We see the redundancy of movement choices creates a redundant response mode. So how can we keep movement fresh: How but switch your hand when you brush your teeth? How about taking a new path when you walk or run? How bout engaging in a Tai Chi or social dance class that will address balance, timing and encourage novel choice making?

Question: Hi Dr G, I know movement is important for forming connections. Could you elaborate? Might this help memory?

Dr. G’s Answer: Important question: Studies at UCI and and Duke in recent years have shown how powerful cardiovascular movement is in making new connections. …In 2009, a Duke U team presented at the Society of Neuroscience, pointing out that even when rad…iated with cancer, rats moving on cardio vascular stimulation wheels actually grew neural networks!!!! Amazing yes!!!!

Across the field of neuroscience you can find studies pointing to the important role of cardio vascular in supporting the growth of neural networks — studies from children to Seniors!!

Question: Is there a particular type of exercise or movement that is best for the brain? For example, does it have to be aerobic, fine motor, etc?

Dr. G’s Answer: Let’s define “best for the brain.” As I’ve mentioned, it’s well established that 20 minutes or more of cardio vascular exercise — brisk walking, swimming, running, biking, dancing — is important for generating blood and oxygen flow. The …result neurotransmitter release has been shown to boost strength of synaptic bonding, stimulate glial cell activity for information flow and at the same time keep the heart happy and pumping along!

But what about other kinds of movements? We know that the geometic/gymnastic quality of power yoga has been correlated with the release of GABA — this after an hour of yoga practice.

Or consider what’s “best” about movement exploration games, dances or martial arts? Especially for children, developing sensory intelligence is key in developing the neurological foundations of body schema, of developing the aspects of spatial intelligence that we use everyday — grid cells, place cells, helping us locate moving up stairs and jumping over puddles.

In addition best can include the exercise of novel ways to explore space to develop cognitive maps for problem solving? Learning new choreographic moves, making up dances — exploring a movement from the ground, standing to moving in space, determining scale and proportion — this is the heart and soul of problem solving using spatial intelligence.

An example, this week, the GGI4Kids program in my institute took a spatial intelligence program into Century Academy of Excellence in Inglewood California. We examined the parietal networks and the anterior cingulate — finding ways to movement and determining difference in scale and proportion in the architectural works of Richard Neutra and the space designs for Alice and Wonderland created by Tim Burton!

So what is best for the brain? All and various ways and degrees of movement to create fluency of perception and response and confidence in adapting to change.

Question: There are so many parts of the brain that are not exercised. Is there a way to navigate these uncharted areas?

Dr. G’s Answer: Exercising different parts of the brain goes to the heart of how we educate ourselves in the the 21st century and how we can use neurotech to chart that movement education. Today, EEG and PET skullcaps have been developed to chart the electronic activity of the moving body — especially the moving child.

Question: When someone starts exercising after a long time he finds it really hard and not enjoyable. By exercising over that ”hard” point, exercise becomes ok and then ”addictive”. What happens to the brain during that transition?

Dr. G’s Answer: Great question — one that has generated lots of theoretical discussion over several decades. First let’s approach this from the standpoint of oxygen and blood flow and the effect that has after 20 -30 minutes of cardiovascular output. Harvard psychiatrist DR. John Ratey has written about the BDNF effect that enables more fruitful synaptic bonding! He calls BDNF “fertilizer” for the thinking brain — it improves cognitive thinking, improves the capacity of the glial cells /white matter to send info through the brain in an efficient and fluid manner.

At another level of analysis, the “hard point” that you mention speaks to the stress levels of neurotransmitters that after a certain time period are counterbalanced by a release of the calming neurotransmitters — production of serotonin for instance.

Question: I am able to learn new facts, processes, and mechanisms very easily and quickly, however, I’ve found my long term memory isn’t as sharp as it use to be. Is there a correlation between having an extremely plastic brain and memory capacity?

Dr. G’s Answer: As I understand it, there is an important correlation between the use of spatial intelligence and long term memory. Movement, cardiovascular exercise can help to grow the area of our brain the creates new memories — the hippocampus.

Question: If the vestibular system is damaged, can exercise be used to improve balance?

Dr. G’s Answer: A terrific question! Vestibular function is key to balance. When damaged, we lose that homostatic tuning to balance throughout the whole body. Given the evolutionary adaptive power of the human brain, retraining balance offers a challenge and a path. Hopkins and UC Santa Barbara researchers are currently working with walking machines that retrain balance – Hopkins working with Parkinson’s patients. So the area of retraining vestibular is opening up.

Follow-up Response: Thanks so much for giving this opportunity to speak with different experts/therapists. it’s just amazing to sit here in a small country town in Australia and be able to access the minds of such knowledgeable people in live time!

Question: Are there specific exercise machines that both push my physical fitness and improve my brain fitness?

Dr. G’s Answer: The move to pair brain fitness and physical fitness is on the horizon. I’m not aware of a specific company that has made the move — but the platform has been predicted and now with computerized running and walking machines, it’s just a matter of programming.

I should note that the famous post-modern dancer Trisha Brown was known for dancing and constructing 3-part narratives that were broken up into a calculus of connected stories. You may want to try walking and constructing stories in an ABC cycle that you can rearrange as a pattern, just to test your problem solving circuits!

Question: Can you explain the optimal amount of exercise one should get on a daily basis coupled with doing brain exercises?

Dr. G’s Answer: There are current claims that 30 -60 minutes of brisk walking a day can boost memory response. Varying tonicity and weight bearing makes a difference at the neuromusclar level. Likewise when playing Posit Science games, notice they way the designers scaffolded the learning sequence so you have a chance to develop visual/spatial fluency that enables you to increase your adaptive speed over a single session then over 3 or 4 sessions.

What is optimal? For whom? Let’s think of this in terms of age and cultural conditions.

Question: Why is it that when I’m typing fast, I type things like “kind” for “can find”?

Dr. G’s Answer: I wish I could answer your question! As a fast typist myself, I often insert correlated words. One neuroscience explanation I think Posit Science faculty can elaborate upon is the way our brain substitutes info in an attempt to accommodate to a sound or movement that has been produced e.g, in dyslexia, the adaptive function of the brain to approximate sound and image.

Question: What is the single most important thing you do on a daily basis for your brain? I need tips people!

Dr. G’s Answer: Regarding the single most important thing — I found that a day without a good hearty walk (at least 20-40 minutes) and a morning “breath meditation” is an unproductive and sluggish day. I am a passionate proponent of finding ways to movement and to create a quiet mind during the day — morning to kickstart the whole of your biology and afternoon to give your brain a chance to “download” the information from the a.m. Think Siesta — research is pointing to powerful role an afternoon nap or meditative “time out” plays in rebooting the nervous system.

Question: Are there certain personality traits that have been linked to IQ or other brain functions?

Dr. G’s Answer: Regarding personality, IQ and brain functions: Let’s say that with the advent of FMRI there are more and more labs in social cognitive neuroscience opening up around the world. The paradigm here is grounded in neuroscience which allows researchers to rethinking 20th century paradigms of personality characteristics since the emphasis is on navigating the whole brain response to social and cognitive situations.

I am aware that there have been efforts to uncover the basis of IQ, eg. where it is the speed or amount of white matter that makes a difference in greater or lesser IQ. The field of social cognitive neuroscience is a great place to begin your research of personality traits, especially the areas of trust, pain, ability to inhibit control over emotions or response.

Question: Do we get smarter/ more intelligent as we age, or is it the other way around?

Dr. G’s Answer: When you ask if we get smart/more intelligence, what precisely do you mean? Are you thinking that as we age we collect more experiences and statistically have more options to choice from to adapt to our environment? Does “wisdom” supplant “intelligence” and “smartness” as the evolutionary response to adaptation as we age? Your question speaks directly to the paradigm of neuroscience grounded on the idea that the human brain is designed to draw on experience to predict future possible consequences to conditions or situations?

I’d like to add that adding movement or spatial intelligence to the question of intelligence is key for addressing the “aging body” — seems those of us who keep moving — who take our bodies for walks and tennis games, for social dances an…d martial art and scuba diving excursions — manage to grow intelligence with movement experience. And Dr. Veronique Bohbot at McGill Unversity has found that the lost of using spatial intelligence e.g. using a GPS system instead of your “spiderman senses” can diminish neural network in a correlated relation between the hippocampus and related memory networks.