Brain Training That Works

Brain Training

Brain training has become popular in the last few years, but does it live up to the hype?

No. (1)

Unfortunately, playing games on your phone doesn’t do much for your brain, aside from make you better at playing those games. (2)

Does that mean you are doomed to suffer from declining cognitive function as you age?

Not necessarily.

There are activities which have demonstrated positive effects on both brain structure and function.

Despite what advertisers tell you, these are not found in your app store.

So what can you do to “train your brain” and make it (and the rest of you) healthier?

Learn A Language

Learning a language is one of the best things you can do for your brain, and your life.

Learning a language opens up your world, from business to social and travel opportunities.

The added bonus is that it reshapes your brain, improving both the structure and function, and potentially helping stave off Alzheimer’s. (3, 4)

In this case, apps can be helpful, but nothing beats engaging in conversations – you are challenged to think in a different language, which is fantastic for cognitive function.

What’s great is that whilst becoming fluent is great for the brain (and your life), the act of learning a language, even if you struggle, still yields improvements.

Learn an Instrument

Learning an instrument has similar effects on the brain to learning a language.

Both the structure of the brain as well as the function are affected positively.

It seems that in the case of musical instruments, the longer you have played them, the better. (5, 6, 7) This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother if you are “older”, it simply means, once you start, keep it up, the benefits are well worth the effort!

One of the more interesting findings made by researchers, is that playing an instrument can help mitigate hearing decline due to ageing as well!

This occurs because we “hear” with our brain. Our ears translate vibrations of the air to electrical impulses that our brains decipher as sounds, and it is thought that playing an instrument helps enhance “meaning” associated with sound, allowing better function when hearing.

Exercise

Exercise is probably the best brain training activity of them all, because it offers so many benefits not only to your brain, but body and soul as well.

It makes sense that moving is so good for our brain, given how much real estate in our heads is allocated to performing and controlling movement.

The list of studied effects of exercise on brain training includes:

  • Structural growth via increased signalling of various growth factors.
  • Improved memory and cognitive function.
  • Delayed onset of neuro-degenerative diseases.

So what’s the best exercise for your brain?

There is research on cardio exercise (running, cycling, walking etc) and strength training, but not much on complex functional movements.

I would hypothesise, that the best form of exercise for your brain is a circuit style workout that challenges you to move in 3 dimensions, pushing, pulling and carrying different loads over different levels – from the ground to standing.

Crossing midline (imagine a line vertically through your body, cutting it into two halves) movements are super charged brain boosting exercises (they use low level versions of these movements in neuro-rehab).

Examples of movements that cross midline:

  • Crawling
  • Skipping
  • Juggling (8)
  • Alternate single leg/arm movements
  • Rolling
  • Rotational movements

Of course, if this sounds too much, just get some vigorous walking in, the research is still positive – move it or lose it (brain function that is).

Meditate

Meditation has been getting a lot of attention from scientists lately.

Research is showing positive changes to brain areas involved in stress and pain, along with global improvements to brain structure and function.

A while back I wrote an article on mindfulness for pain management – the principles described in it are relevant to brain health too.

Whether you do focused meditation, pray or simply spend time quietly contemplating, it is a fair assumption to say that inward focused practices can all have a positive affect on your brain.

Drink Coffee

Not everyone responds to coffee positively, but if you respond well, enjoy it or are addicted to it (not the greatest thing mind you), then there is some positive news.

Drinking u coffee a day can be neuroprotective (9).

I’m not sure it makes your brain better, but it can help stave off neurodegenerative diseases, which I guess, makes your brain better simply by virtue of not getting worse.

Of course, coffee has adverse effects that are more pronounced in some people, so exercise good judgement when deciding whether coffee “works” for you.

Conclusions

Brain training apps don’t work to make you smarter or improve the structure and function of your brain.

In fact, not much can make you more intelligent, as psychologists have been trying for almost 100 years to do, with very little success.

There are many things you can do to improve your brain health and potentially protect yourself against neurodegenerative diseases.

Like all biological cells, the brain responds to stimuli, and if you use your brain for challenging stimuli, it responds positively, growing new neural connections, increasing in density and improving in function.

Ideally, you will have a coffee before you exercise with your trainer who speaks to you in a new language, followed by an evening meditation before you play your instrument of choice.

 

Nick Efthimiou OsteopathThis blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

Integrative Osteopathy is an osteopathic practice located in the heart of Fitzroy North, within the reputable Healthy Fit gym. With a focus on education, manual therapy, and active rehabilitation, Integrative Osteopathy offers individual solutions to various painful problems.

If you liked this article, and would like to learn more about maintaining brain and body health throughout your life, call 0448 052 754 to have a chat with Nick, or, to make an appointment online, click here.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 



 

 

 

References

(1) Consensus on Brain Training

(2) Putting Brain Training to the Test

(3) Language Learning Makes the Brain Grow

(4) Growth of Brain Areas After Foreign Language Learning

(5) Effects of Music Lessons on Aging Brain

(6) Brain Structures Differ Between Musicians and Non-musicians

(7) Effects of Musical Training on Structural Brain Development

(8) Juggling Enhances Connections in the Brain

(9) Neuroprotective and Anti-inflammatory Properties of Coffee

 

The Truth About “Muscle Imbalances”

Running man muscles anatomy system

With almost a decade of experience working in a gym as a personal trainer and osteopath, muscle imbalances are a familiar topic to me.

Courses abound claiming to teach trainers and therapists how to “assess” for muscle imbalances and then “correct” these imbalances with specific stretches or exercises or treatment techniques.

The notion of muscle imbalances that need to be corrected feeds into the idea of an all-knowing practitioner, who can identify the problem causing your pain and then give you the tools to resolve it. I have previously bought into such notions. I was wrong.

Luckily, mistakes are simply lessons, and now I can share my lessons with you.

In the post, I want to outline what a “muscle imbalance” is, why they occur and their relationship to pain. By understanding all of this, you will be able to know exactly what to do about any muscle imbalances you have.

What Is A “Muscle Imbalance”?

Like many questionable concepts in the training and treatment world, there is no clear consensus on what a muscle imbalance actually is. Here are a few examples from page 1 of google:

To summarise, muscular imbalance is seen when the muscles that surround a joint provide different values of tension, sometimes weaker or tighter than normal, thus limiting the joint movement. – Wikipedia

The most common abnormal muscle condition in active and inactive people alike is muscle imbalance, which occurs when two or more muscles don’t contract and relax as they should. This type of problem is referred to as neuromuscular imbalance. – Phil Maffetone, PhD

Simply put, muscle imbalances occur when one muscle is stronger than its opposing muscle. – Dailyburn

What we can deduce, is that a muscle imbalance is a difference in muscle length and or/strength between two or more muscles acting on the same joint.

Why Do Muscle Imbalances Occur?

Are muscle imbalances the problem, or a solution?

If you see muscle imbalances as a problem, in and of themselves, then you will try and correct them with interventions targeted at those muscles.

If you see muscle imbalances as a solution, as I do, then you will try and consider why these “imbalances” exist – if you argue that these imbalances are a solution the body has come up with, then they are not exactly imbalances, but rather adaptations.

So how can a muscle imbalance be a solution?

Well, if we start with the premise that the body, being a biological organism, has an innate mechanism for survival, and will strive to do so above all else, for the sake of procreation (which ensures the long term survival of the species).

We can then deduce that these imbalances are a survival mechanism, or adaptation, aka a solution to a problem.

Back in high school math, my teacher always urged the class to show our working on a problem. If we happened to stumble upon the solution accidentally, then the solution wasn’t that great. Additionally, if we made a mistake early on in the process, but continued with the correct methodology to land at an incorrect solution, then we were awarded consequential marks.

The body is like a math problem.

It’s goal is survival, and execution of tasks (the solution), it doesn’t care how it performs these tasks (working), nor does it care if these “faulty” solutions lead to issues either elsewhere in the body or in the future (consequential marking).

So, if we get back to topic – muscle imbalances are a solution to a problem, which can then be a problem in and of themselves.

What is the problem?

Usually, it boils down to a lack of stability, somewhere in the body.

Now, a lack of stability can co-exist with a lack of mobility within a joint segment – you can’t exactly stabilise/control movement if there is nothing to control, can you?

Why would you lose mobility/stability at a joint?

Adaptation.

As mentioned, the body is continually adapting in a way that best serves it, in that moment (however long the moment is), based on the overall exposures to different stimuli.

Thus, a young tradesman who works 50+ hours per week will have a different body to his twin brother who is a uni student who has 12 contact hours and spends another 20 or so reading and using a computer (assuming all other variables are equal, which is very unlikely).

So, What Should I Do Then?

Acceptance is the first step.

Accepting that muscle imbalances happen, and will continue to do so, no matter what. They are often a good thing, as they allow you to accomplish your day to day and recreational tasks more efficiently.

Imagine if you were a recreational runner. Your muscles will adapt, forming “imbalances”, related to your running pattern, in order to make running more efficient for you.

Is this bad? Not always.

Is it good? Not always.

However, if your muscle imbalances are related to another issue – pain, poor function (i.e. you can’t do what you want to do), then you need to assess your environment, your activities and lifestyle and your overall health status.

This will give you an insight to your ability to adapt and deal with said environment and lifestyle, and why such imbalances may be occurring.

Essentially we want to know:

  • What you can currently do – ie your absolute ability, in this case, as it pertains to movement. We do this by testing and assessing.
  • What you do regularly – your lifestyle and regular activities, that would contribute to your current ability. This is done by having a conversation (history taking).
  • What you aspire to do, or cannot not currently (the problem).

If there is a gap between what you aspire to do and what you can currently do, we seek to find out why.

If the problem is something the testing and assessing has revealed, then we can address those findings, within the context that the current state of the body isn’t necessarily a “problem”, but a “solution” to your current situation – sum of lifestyle, environment, your healthy status and health history.

So, that means, if a muscle is “tight” and another is “weak”, but this is because it is more efficient to be this way, we have to regress to progress.

That is, go backwards to go forwards by reducing the complexity of the movement and increasing the stability, so the movement is more easily performed without compensation.

Once mastery in a regressed position is achieved, we can progress.

In essence, you are addressing the muscle imbalance by addressing total body function, that is, the sum of our body’s mobility, stability and capacity, expressed in context.

This means, if you are having issues sitting, then we must improve your ability to demonstrate good function in sitting, but also your overall function, as your functional ability to sit is a subset of your overall function.

Simply put, improve function, and you improve the muscle imbalances.

However, the inverse is not true, if you improve the muscle imbalances, there are no guarantees you will improve function of the body.

Conclusions

Muscle imbalances are real, in that they are described consistently by different people.

They are not, as consistently described, problems that need addressing.

Muscle imbalances occur as a way for the body to adapt (poorly) to a stimulus over time.

In order to resolve a muscle imbalance, we must determine what our bodies are capable of, what we are asking of it and whether there is a gap between the two.

The size of this gap gives us insight as to how and why the body might be adapting/compensating.

We then address this gap by improving global function – that is total body mobility, stability and capacity – in a systematic way, allowing the body to “re-learn” optimal movement patterns that are stored in the brain.

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 



 

 

 

References

Sapolsky, R., Introduction to Human Behavioural Biology

Wikipedia – Muscle Imbalance 

Dailyburrn – Muscle Imbalances and Functional Movement Screen

Phil Maffetone – Muscle Imbalance, Part 1

Phil Maffetone – Muscline Imbalance, Part 2