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New Tricks

beth-circle-head By Beth Heller

All this month we’ve been promoting the health benefits of staying cognitively engaged as we age.  But lifelong learning doesn’t just mean book-learning.  In fact, research suggests that learning new motor skills throughout life builds new brain cells in ways similar to, and equally important as, using our noggins.  

The impact of exercise on cognitive function is well established, with a host of studies showing that regular physical exercise increases the amount of new nerve cells created in areas of the brain used for thinking and memory.  Yet the benefits of exercise may be even greater than that.  In a rather ingenious study, researchers compared brain changes in two sets of mice: one group that “worked out” every day on a typical exercise wheel, and one group that were given a wonky wheel with unevenly spaced rungs that required them to learn a new stutter-step gait.  The result?  The mice on the different wheel added brain matter in the area of their brains associated with motor skills.  Neuroscientists believe that we’d see a similar impact on the human brain.  

So what’s the take-away?  Well, when we consider the positive impact physical mobility has on the quality of life in aging people, and in reverse, the negative impact of poor balance and falling, creating new gray matter in the area responsible for movement seems to be a good investment of time and energy.

This month, largely spurred on by research for this blog, I decided to do my own experiment and take golf lessons.  While not nearly as physically intense my go-to exercise of running, the work is definitely there.  In addition to sore shoulders, I feel my brain ache a bit from the effort of learning new physical movements and unlearning old patterns.  The etiquette, the terminology and even the ethos (focused but relaxed, effortless effort) pull me outside of my comfort zone. And,  while I don’t have access to an MRI, I’d put money on a measurable increase in gray matter.  

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a liberation and joy in being a newbie that I haven’t felt for a while. Unlike the cranky lifelong golfers to my right and left at the driving range, I can laugh at myself during the learning process.  

So whether it’s golf, pickle-ball, yoga or paddle boarding, the old adage about dogs cannot stand.   Learning new tricks, it seems, keeps an old dog young!  

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