Monday, September 28, 2015

Balance and weight bearing exercises enhance cognitive function, memory

                                         Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkácsi 1929

Physical activity has been popular to improve physical performance, but numerous studies have also indicated that long-term exercise prevents age-related mental decline. It is even suggested that exercise improves mental function at any age. However, the exact nature of these results have remained controversial: some studies show better mental health resulting only from specific exercises, whereas other studies find that all structured physical activities produce mental benefits. A recent study at the University of Florida adds an important element of understanding. The scientists investigated the effects of physical activity that required participants to constantly adjust orientation in space, such as climbing a tree, or balancing on a narrow beam. In contrast to Yoga class, these spatially challenging movements led to significant improvements in short-term memory. Also, memory improvements were apparent after just a couple of hours of tree climbing, obstacle navigation or balancing tasks. In addition, repetitive cervical traction exercises such as wobble board, put motion into the lower back, which improves cerebral fluid flow, providing fresh oxygen and nutrition to the brain. The traction also helps stretch and increase the elasticity of chronically tight upper cervical muscles and ligaments. Wobble board also challenges coordination and increases the range of motion.

The exercises influence on brain activity and mental abilities could be due to a small brain region, called the hippocampus, a region responsible for the formation of new memories, particularly spatial orientation, or declarative memory. The brain circuitry used for orienting in physical space is also utilized for abstract thinking because abstract thinking is symmetric in the organization to the processing to physical experience. A habitual path in physical space can make it more difficult to learn a new roadmap because the memorized mental map interferes with new information. Thus, habitual associations, mental routines negatively impact acquiring new knowledge. Because of this interconnection, new learning is dependent on the weakening of old memories, the erasing of connections between neurons. Spatially challenging, dynamic body positioning and orientation exercises enhance learning by temporarily liberating the mind from old schematic associations and patterns. Non-repetitive dynamic movements, such as dance, vigorous cleaning or ball games are also helpful. Mental flexibility allows the mind to absorb new information better. However, regular physical exercise and all kinds of physical movement are beneficial for the mind by releasing dopamine, our feel-good hormone, which is important in motivation. Stationary exercises, such as yoga, reduce stress and improve mental health by promoting emotional stability.

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