Saturday, March 6, 2010

Exercise and The Brain. The Body-Mind Connection!

I have been doing endurance exercise as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I usually went on a day hike and weekend backpack every month with my scout troop. We usually did a week in the grand canyon and two weeks in the sierras every year. Think two weeks in the sierras is rough? I lived in Europe many summers with my grandparents, where you walked EVERYWHERE, and travelling with my parents involved a LOT of walking. And I swam. A few times a year, my whole life.

The last few years I have been on my triathlon Odyssey. To me it was all about the Mind-Body connection. The discipline required to train regularly, go to bed early, and so many other details that go into a successful race at any distance for most people. Also understanding how to periodize and stress your body in an effective way to prepare for an event gave me a similar feeling to the process of preparing and performing in piano competitions as a child. What I realized recently is that it works in the other direction as well. There is a VERY POWERFUL Body-Mind connection!

I have told people for years how the time I have swimming, biking, running help me think better, more peacefully, and in a more focused fashion. I sleep better, eat better, chill better, not TO exercise, but BECAUSE I exercise. I also think doing yoga for 13 years now as well as tai qi, and other martial arts have all crystallized into an amazing set of experiences to draw on to keep my (poor injured) self whole, and heal injuries effectively.

Last year I suffered a critical head injury that left me in a coma for several days. While I suffered for months, my recovery was truly miraculous, and surprised literally EVERY doctor I saw for 6 months. Still, the first month I head such bad headaches I was taking morphine twice a day. For months I could not handle loud noise, or bright lights, or do a LOT of things I used to take for granted.

 I consider it lucky that the accident happened 2 weeks after wildflower when I was fit, AND particularly rested. When it comes to recovery however, literally the day I was off pain killers, I was back on the exercise bike. I did 2x2mi runs that week. MAN was it tough after literally 5 weeks of sitting or lying almost all the time. At the time my motivation was to take a chance and try to do Ironman Cozumel which I had signed up for over a year in advance. It never occurred to me it would help me heal. Make me whole.

I can't quantify how much it helped. My neurosurgeon gave me a drug called Namenda for Alzheimer's patients which may or may not have helped. My work was very warm in allowing me to come back to work part time the week after my accident (They still asked for a doctors note ALLOWING me to work :) ), and gradually ramp back to full time over the next 2-3 months, and I believe that getting back on the horse is the best way to get better after ANYTHING. I feel that my daily cardio 5 weeks out for 5 months was a BIG contributor to my rapid recovery.

I think this article in Men's Health sums up a lot of these things (for women as well), in an article I read recently. They cite a few interesting studies that quantify some of the benefits I've experienced and claimed. The top line 15% effectiveness improvement is a big deal. Imagine if EVERYONE started exercising regularly. Our health care costs would go down, and we would experience a MASSIVE productivity bump. Is a world where everyone is Healthy, Productive, and even Happy so well within our grasp?

A couple of really profound quotes from the article for the scientists out there:

The results of the electroencephalograph may explain the difference in brain activity. The data showed that the single 30-minute bout of cardio had two major effects on an electrical system of the brain called P3. First, the exercise session "decreased P3 latency," which means subjects were able to process information faster. Second, Hillman found that the cardio session "increased P3 amplitude," a measurement of brain activity related to memory and focus. So their aerobic exercise helped them concentrate better and recall information faster. 

That's pretty low down. But they are saying your brain is faster, and stronger. What? Another study (admittedly subjective) said that:

Workers scored 15 percent higher in their ability to meet both time and output demands on the day they exercised. "What we found staggered us, and we were left wondering what companies might do otherwise to produce these 15 percent improvements," says Jim McKenna, Ph.D., the lead researcher. 

and two quotes that back up my early comments on health, productivity, and even happiness as a byproduct of exercise:

Edward Hallowell, M.D., a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and coauthor of Delivered from Distraction, concurs with Giorgio's observations. "Cardio is one of the best treatments for ADD and poor mental focus, as well as for anxiety," he says. "It's like a wonder drug for the brain." 

And shall we add "happiness" to the list, too? Duke University researchers found that performing moderate-intensity cardio three times a week was as effective as the antidepressant Zoloft at reducing major depression. 

Pretty potent stuff. I welcome your comments.

A couple of other interesting articles I've written on triathlon:

A scientific coverage of the understanding of modern training methods, periodization, intervals, as well as some of my favorite training methodologies and coaching/writing resources out there.

The Art of Triathlon. My thoughts on how testing oneself leads to a better being.
Pretty Awesome NIH study about metabolites in our bodies after exercise. The evidence keeps on mounting!
Also some NY Times Blog Coverage of the results.

They put it well:
" the experiment does reinforce the lesson, which we all know whether we heed it or not, that the human body needs to move."

Yeah! They also link to some articles with good quotes:
Exercise improves your grades.
"After controlling for such variables, the findings still showed that exercise made a sizable difference in a student’s G.P.A. On a 4.0 grade scale, students who exercised vigorously seven days a week had G.P.A.’s that were, on average, 0.4 points higher than those who didn’t exercise. "
Exercise keeps our cells young (As measured by size of telomeres).
And interesting mixed reports about exercise improving sleep quality. I think so but they put some doubts on it.  Basically in this one it seems to be a subjective (i.e. placebo type effect on people's OPINIONS, not real effects).

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