Updated: Jul 12
Three Key Elements to Optimize Neuro Function
Your brain and spinal cord are the core of your nervous system. They are each protected deep within sheaths of hard bones. The scull and the spine. The core has sensitive satellites that allow us to feel and know. These are nerves and neurons. They are intricately laced, tucked and spread throughout bones and softer tissues like muscles, fat and fascia. There are three important things to do to support your brain, and its spectacular spinal cord.
1. Aerobic Movement.
2. Motor Learning Experiences.
3. Focused Attention Exercises.
1. Aerobic Movement.
You don't have to go on a treadmill at the gym to get aerobic movement. There are many fun and practical ways to implement a daily routine of aerobic movement.
How to support your brain and nervous system with aerobic movement:
Aerobic Movement is anything you are actively doing with repetitive motion. Can be slow or fast but not stationary or static. It is synonymous with cardiovascular endurance. It gets your heart going as your breathing demands increase =aerobic activity. It doesn't have to be hard. What's important here is not intensity but sustained flowing movement. Cardio is continuous whole body rhythmic movement. Every human, regardless of health or disability status needs to move for at least 10min at a time for a total of 30min/day. Anything under 3 minutes uses other, non-aerobic energy channels from stored glucose and creatine phosphate.
Our cardiovascular systems, like river channels move nourishing fluid throughout. When we move our bodies, we help our heart to keep the blood flowing, not stagnating.
Aerobic Activity gets your blood moving which circulates nutrients, oxygen, & lymph throughout your body and brain. It is absolutely necessary for basic health. Turns out it's good for your brain too.
Aerobic Activity, along with Novel Learning Experiences and Focused Attention Exercises make up what is known as The Neuroplastic Triad. These 3 key elements are known to increase the brain's level of maleability, which is also known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is THE indicator of brain health.
Novel Learning Experiences
The second point to our triangle of key elements for a vital brain is motor learning. Motor learning is learning by doing with your body. Experiential learning means learning by doing. We can also call that motor learning.
The How of Novel Learning Experiences
Here are some ways that you can learn new skills that require hand eye coordination and motor learning:
Try a new sport like Disc Golf
Practice a martial art like Capoeira or Kalarippayattu
Start a crafting project or work towards mastering your abilities in one type that you already enjoy
Improve on your physical work skills- building, mechanical, grasping, throwing ...
Gardening-try a new species or variety
Implement new tactics for speed, power or balance
Try a new way of organizing cupboards or kitchens
Identify, find, harvest and/or prepare new types of plants or animals-foods or medicines.
Start speaking and writing a new language
Motor Learning aka Novel Learning Experiences aka Hands-on Learning keeps the brain body connection active. Different activities or actions require different coordination's to the mind. We want to challenge ourselves to keep up the growth/ the plasticity/ mobility by doing things that are new to us. When we do the same thing all the time we create patterns in our body and grooves and channels in our brain. This makes doing it easier. There's a flow, an easefulness. We become practiced. Conditioned to the thing that were used to doing. By challenging yourself to improve on skill or learn to do ANOTHER new thing with your body and mind you build new grooves-new highways. Motor learning regenerates brain activity.
Nerves and neurons, are like a tree's roots (rootlets) and branches (& tips)-sensitive to their inner and outer environments. Always communicating back and forth. The trees in conversation with deep soils and waterways below-and with sunshine and air above.
Using our brain, spinal cord, nerves and neurons we communicate in hyper speed, within the body and without, through our nervous system.
Neurons are connectors of body to brain and brain to body. Neurons make the electrical sparks that keep us moving and thinking. For fun, imagine them as sparkles.
You have a reptile brain, an emotional brain and a rational one. Brainstem at the bottom of the brain. It is at the top of the spine cord where scull and spine meet. This is where you find the reptile brain. Tail bone at the bottom protects the tail of the brain- the bottom of the spinal cord. The emotional brain and the rational are sort of cradled, sort of stacked over the brainstem/reptile brain. So what I am saying is that basically you are like a brilliant shiny sparkling beast.
Focused Attention Exercises
Focused attention exercises tie movement and learning together in this Neuroplastic Triad. Learning something new with your body requires focused attention. We'll go deeper here. We'll explore attention & focus and consider why looking in or looking out can improve your brain and nervous system. We'll also look at the emotional brain body. Reading these next paragraphs will require your focused attention. (I hope you'll stick with it and thank me for this later :)
We have simple focused attention to an outer point or sharp gaze, observation to something far away or close by. Your eyes usually leading the way. this is easy enough, keep an eye on something and know that you are paying attention-focused attention. We can also focus our attention inward.
There is introspection but also interoseption. Both can be used for practicing focused attention exercises.
Introspection is where we focus inward, we contemplate. It becomes focused attention when you have an end goal, a specific task, or you are purposely reflecting on a situation. Reflection is good for the brain. Ideally give your attention to reflecting towards positive end results or greater hopes and beliefs.
Negative thinking traps (called default mode networks in brain science speak) can generate more of the same panic or anxious pouring of more negative feelings and thoughts. Because we have emotional memory and hormonal connections you can get stuck there. I can't get fully into here, however
I'll give a shot at a short introduction here:
1st you'll have to practice a novel learning experience by learning two more terms:)
Interoception and proprioception.
Introspection is reflection.
Interoception on the otherhand is where we know and feel what it is to be in our body. We actually have the sense of "the hip bone connected to the leg bone". In both introspection and interoception we focus inward.
But proprioception takes us from the inward to the outward. Proprioception is knowing by doing-how much force, for example, to use when you pick up a bottle off a table. You know from prior experience AND the present feeling of the thing-the weight and size of it between your palm and fingers. You know deeply in your body how much effort, control or mobileness is needed. Proprioception requires you to be attentively present in your body, to be aware of your environment, be aware of what's around you and be aware of the thing that you are interacting with. Proprioception enlists interoception naturally. You don't actually think about it. You feel it. Its muscle memory + environment and the things you are coming in contact with.
In practicing focused attention exercises I like to use the senses. You can go deeper still. The eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin being both a core and satellite to the nervous system are keys into the brain, actually. Where each of these meets, at the center of the scull, we find master glands: the makers and directors of hormones and hormone production. Thus interweaving another magnificent web of the emotional body mind. Without getting into it too much of course, I just want you to know that having a deep emotional connection solidifies the attention piece. And using the senses deepens the body mind learning.
How to of Focused Attention Exercises:
Learn something new as above
Practice looking closely at the environment around you
Pay attention to your breathing
Pay attention to your habits
Notice subtle details
Sink into the feeling of seeing -pay attention as you look slowly from side to side
Notice different shapes or colors
Stop, pause, and look intently at a small spider or other creature
At first, especially, it requires more effort and energy. With practice a learning curve sets in and you become conditioned. There is muscle memory. The grooves and patterns are set as certain neurons get used to connecting in that way. It gets easier. You become a seeing, feeling whole. They say that neurons that fire together-wire together- thus making up the highway of doing without thinking about it- a habit. The actions, that at first were hard, requiring so much focused attention becomes unconscious: easy. Hard not to do. If we want to keep the brain vibrant and nimble, we try new things, we improve on our capacities, we take the time, energy and attention to focus and grow and we use our whole body to do so.
Conclusion: To optimize neuro function include aerobic movement, novel learning experiences and focused attention practices. These three keys to optimizing neuro function can be summed: move, learn & pay attention. Although it can get super complicated and nuanced, basically all we're doing is tying the mental, emotional & physical together. We're not merely brains or merely physical beings. We know that brain and body impacts emotions and that emotions impact brain and body. Studies in Health & Human Development and Exercise Sciences help to explain how and why. We know these things in our body even without the language to say how it is so. Working as an emergency medical technician and as an American College of Sports Medicine physical activity and public health specialist, I've had the privilege to learn, witness, see and know how truly remarkable the body brain is. You can practice moving (aerobic movement), hands on learning (novel learning experiences), and tuning in or tuning out (focused attention practices) separately or you can do things that combine all three. Slowly, carefully attentively is good. I also love to combine all three. It gets me reaching into flow states. And that's for another time.
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ACE PT, EX SC, Health Coach
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This is how I train. This is how I coach. Whole body health. Mental. Emotional. Physical. Whole. When I say Fields of Recovery, I'm talking about 1. Recovery of Land based practices and hands on learning 2. Recovery around mental health, behavioral health, addictions to things that harm us and the community and fellowship that comes with it. Patterning healthy habits with lifestyle medicine as a group. AND 3. Day to day physical body recovery. Healing the body with preventative medicine. The necessity of intentional active Recovery for optimum physical performance.
You need to have ebb and flow- recovery and rebound. I especially value endurance - sustained effort. It requires organizing your conditioning in concert with the functional demands of your daily life being certain to incorporate healing time= recovery.
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I use many of these strategies that support optimum brain function. Breath. Slow attentive movement. Tuning into your surroundings, heightening the 5 senses-, counter movements to support daily demands and stresses, periodization, scheduling rhythm and routine... stealthily moving from fight or flight to rest and digest and back again as necessary.
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