Thanks for that outstanding input. You've added an important justification to strengthen the case for brain-training. Indeed I've noticed among my own, and my wife's, aging relatives a decrease in mental acuity. I've wondered the extent to which that reflects the natural aging process vs. a lessening of engagement on their part.
Less engagement means not just engaging with fewer people, but the result of taking on less challenging tasks.
In recent years, there has been exciting study into the phenomenon of how physical activity stimulates the brain which strongly suggests that exercise is the best way to stay healthy, alert and happy. It is now well documented that moving muscles produces proteins that play roles in our highest thought processes.
Dr. John Ratey, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, writes the following in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain :
“We all know that exercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why. We assume it’s because we’re burning off stress or reducing muscle tension or boosting endorphins, and we leave it at that.
But the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important—and fascinating—than what it does for the body.
Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects. I often tell my patients that the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.”
Taking that a step further, I would assert that not all exercise is created equal in the service of growing brain cells. No disrespect to running and cycling, but you can do either without much mental engagement. On a long ride I'm far more likely to "bliss out" on the beautiful scenery around New Paltz than to focus on my position or pedaling technique. I seldom run anymore, but when I did I was more inclined to zone out than to focus on posture, stride etc. Even after learning ChiRunning and their focal points my experience was that 5 minutes of attention to the key points brought a dramatic improvement in my experience of running. I wasn't sufficiently motivated to pursue more. As well, the natural beauty around me probably increased the production of endorphins, but may well have reduced the production of proteins associated with engaged exercise.
Swimming is another matter entirely. It does require rigorous, exacting and highly-targeted attention to achieve even entry-level economy and comfort. The demands on your mental stamina never lessen. Advanced skills require just as much - perhaps more -focus. The reward is that such focus brings such a striking improvement in the quality of your experience -- not just your speed, but the mojo -- that it renews your motivation to keep that level of focus.
Then there's fact that the environment in which we swim is much more sensorily-narrow than that in which we run or bike. I may occasionally note the beauty of the passing shoreline while swimming in Lake Awosting, but I typically notice it for a nanosecond while breathing, then spend minutes focused on my stroke. This sensory deprivation -- as well as the fact that it disallows social interaction (you can't chat with swimming companions as you can with a running or cycling group) is usually thought of as a negative aspect of swimming. But if you're looking to the value of brain-protein production, it's unequivocally beneficial to have that narrowing of focus.
Experiencing the rewards of "moving meditation" in swimming has raised the bar for me on what I expect from sports generally. The right kind of focus, leading to improvement in form, in swimming has produced "swimming epiphanies" that are literally thrilling in how much better my stroke feels.
As a result, in recent years I've found it harder to motivate myself to do activities that simply can't produce moments such as that. Cycling and running just don't make the cut - though I still enjoy the combination of aerobic buzz and natural beauty in cycling. On the other hand, the freestyle method of x-c skiing -- especially on an uphill -- and to a somewhat lesser extent sculling do. Like swimming, both are aerobic, rhythmic and exacting in their requirement for skill. Thus both produce both thrilling moments and powerful and sustained flow states that are truly addictive. They also put you in a soul-sustaining environment.
There's only one activity I can think of which takes that combination to a yet-higher level: Open Water Swimming. It offers a far wider and more challenging range of problems to solve, and the ability -- when you get into a "massive zone" -- to continue in your flow state for hundreds or thousands of strokes, uninterrupted by a wall. And then there's the natural environment.
I nominate OW Swimming as the best activity for growing brain cells while also promoting CV health.
Head Coach & Chief Executive Optimist
May your laps be as happy as mine.
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