If you lived to 100, what would your birthday wish be? Mine would be a clear mind.
The good news is there’s hope for us. Emerging fitness science is discovering profound cognitive and central nervous system benefits of physical activity.
The potential of physical training to keep your mind sharp is becoming increasingly clear. To my mind, programming physical fitness to keep our minds strong is the promising future of fitness
I’ve been evolving my personal practice with functional training for 30 years. Since 2009 my life’s work has been developing training tools. Over the years I’ve been very lucky to connect with dozens of talented innovators and specialists and have had a number of insights as a result.
Today I’m presenting a new concept, Neuro Cross Training (NCT). NCT has, as its fundamental organizing intention, the optimization of the cognitive and CNS benefits of physical fitness with resistance training.
The three core principles of Neuro Cross Training can be applied to ANY training tool.
#1 – Progression of Integrated Movement with Resistance – Movement variety amplifies physical and mental adaptation. Integrated full-body resisted movement patterns should be progressed unilaterally and bilaterally, contralaterally, and ipsilaterally. The systemized progression of these patterns should include static upper and lower body combinations, isometric and isotonic contractions. The goal of NCT practice is to develop movement competence in many patterns with resistance. Integrated movement is progressed to thinking movement/ choreography/flow and reaction training. Different types and vectors of resistance should be employed to train movements through as many ranges of motion as practical.
#2 – Training with Resistance on Your Feet – Training ground forces matters for performance and fall prevention. Training with resistance from the ground up is part of integrated full-body training. The vast majority of your entire body’s proprioceptors are on the soles of your feet. Every rep done standing will require more neural engagement than a similar ROM trained seated or lying down. Focussing on learning a vocabulary of exercises done standing offers a readily accessible and progressable variety of patterns that will consistently create coordinative demands. Training standing is, from the get-go, a broader vocabulary of accessible, progressable movements, as such, it needs to be mastered as a key element of best practice.
#3 – Metabolic Variety – The systemic CNS benefits of exercise are well established and varied. Different works rates in the appropriate dosages should be employed. High intensity and steady-state cardio provide enhanced cerebral blood flow, proven to improve memory, executive function, and cognitive reserve. There are specific molecular responses to strength work, as well as cardio and steady-state work that improves the brain’s chemistry. Working too much in any metabolic zone has downsides, like overtraining anything…it’s all good ’till it’s bad.
The Neuro Cross Training Vol 1 is now available as an eBook and as a paperback on our website and on Amazon.
The Emerging Research
“In particular, imaging findings further support the notion that individuals who regularly engaged in exercise that involves more cognitive loads and demands may gain superior benefits”
“This study provides new insight into how we get good at things that require motor skills and provides information about how these skills are actually learned…This study shows that it’s good for the brain to add more plasticity,”
“In summary, optimal loading for speciﬁc adaptation should consider integration of the entire neuromuscular skeletal system. For loading to be optimal, it should be directed to the appropriate tissues and gradually progressed in terms of magnitude, direction and rate”
“In essence, says Dorthe Stensvold, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who led the new study, intense training — which was part of the routines of both the interval and control groups — provided slightly better protection against premature death than moderate workouts alone.”
“The findings could help to address the muscle wastage and loss of strength often experienced in an immobilized arm, such as after injury, by using eccentric exercise on the opposing arm. In eccentric exercises, the contracting muscle is lengthening, such as when lowering a dumbbell in bicep curls, sitting on a chair slowly or walking downstairs. Previous research has shown these exercises are more effective at growing muscle than concentric exercises, in which muscle are shortening such as when lifting a dumbbell or walking up stairs.”
“These findings suggest that it is not necessary for people to carry out highly strenuous exercise to achieve observable improvements in long-term memory, as moderate exercise can have a more positive influence.”
“Just like a muscle adapts to repeated use, single sessions of exercise may flex cognitive neural networks in ways that promote adaptations over time and lend to increased network integrity and function and allow more efficient access to memories,” Dr. Smith explained.
“A short burst of moderate exercise enhances the consolidation of memories in both healthy older adults and those with mild cognitive impairment, scientists with UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory have discovered.”
“For example, a 2018 study showed that people with lower fitness levels experienced faster deterioration of vital nerve fibers in the brain called white matter. A study published last year showed exercise correlated with slower deterioration of the hippocampus…Cerebral blood flow is a part of the puzzle, and we need to continue piecing it together,” Thomas says. “But we’ve seen enough data to know that starting a fitness program can have lifelong benefits for our brains as well as our hearts.”
Endurance training, strength training or a mix of these components seem to improve cognitive performance. However, coordinated and challenging sports that require complex movement patterns and interaction with fellow players are significantly more effective.
“Our finding that the relationship between body movements and the activity of the part of the cortex closest to the muscles is profoundly plastic and shaped by learning provides a better picture of this process…What we saw was that during learning, different patterns of activity–which cells are active, when they’re active–were evident in the motor cortex,”
“researchers found that in both healthy people and people with cognitive impairment longer term exposure to exercise, at least 52 hours of exercise conducted over an average of about six months, improved the brain’s processing speed, the amount of time it takes to complete a mental task. In healthy people, that same amount of exercise also improved executive function, a person’s ability to manage time, pay attention and achieve goals.”
“Our research team measured levels of physical activity in study participants an average of two years prior to death, and then examined their brain tissue after death, and found that moving more may have a protective effect on the brain,” said study author Aron S. Buchman, MD, of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “People who moved more had better thinking and memory skills compared to those who didn’t move much at all. We found movement may essentially provide a reserve to help maintain thinking and memory skills when there are signs of dementia present in the brain.”
“The present study showed gains across three domains earlier than previously documented in sedentary middle-aged to old adults. The findings suggest that healthy life style changes in exercise habits can help to mitigate unnecessary losses. The sooner one starts the better since the slope of declines in brain and cognitive health become steeper from age 50 forward”
“The present study showed bilateral activity in brain hemispheres within the sensorimotor and prefrontal cortices during unilateral tasks, suggesting that brain activity is developing a motor schema using one side of the body that could be used by the opposite side.”
“Overall, the literature indicates that brain/cognitive reserve built up by regular exercise in several stages of life, prepares the brain to be more resilient to cognitive impairment and consequently to brain pathology.”
Similar to chronic exercise, acute bouts of different exercise types have divergent effects on cognitive performance. Acute physical exercise with a high coordinative demand leads, in comparison to a purely aerobic exercise, to higher scores in attention tests (Budde et al., 2008), in working memory tests (Koutsandreou et al., 2016; Zach and Shalom, 2016), and in cognitive flexibility measures (Benzing et al., 2016). Taken together, acute and chronic physical exercises with high cognitive (coordinative) demands enhance cognitive performance. The beneficial effect of cognitively demanding exercises supports the recommendation of Pesce (2012) who proposes to shift the focus of exercise–cognition research from quantitative (e.g., exercise duration or intensity) to qualitative aspects (e.g., type of exercise).
“Thus, it seems likely that long-term exercise may improve cognitive performance even without noticeable changes in physical fitness. In contrast, Ludyga and colleagues suggest we should care about the type of exercise. They found that coordinative exercise induced greater cognitive enhancements compared to other traditional exercise types (aerobic, resistance, or a combination). This is in line with accumulating evidence showing synergistic benefits of an exercise combining both physical and cognitive challenges to enhance neuroplasticity”
More research will be necessary to explain how walking improves creativity, the authors said. They speculated that future studies would likely determine a complex pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to physiological changes to the cognitive control of imagination.