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Old 12-11-2009
terry terry is offline
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Default Swim to Grow New Brain Cells

This is an excerpt from the in-development 2010 TI Coaches Manual. I will post certain excerpts here for review and critique by forum members, anticipating your feedback can help make the final document better. After reading, let us know what questions it may leave unanswered or further connections you believe can be made.
Thanks,
Terry

Training the Brain
In recent months the phrase “I swim to grow new brain cells” has become my mantra. I swim for many other reasons as well – for improvement, enjoyment, to age gracefully – but swimming to grow new brain cells as my fundamental motivation makes all my other valued outcomes far more likely.

This insight is the culmination of a lifetime of swimming and teaching, as well as the product of much reading and study. The more I learn about the brain and nervous system, the more I realize how critical such knowledge will be to keeping TI content and curriculum on the cutting edge and to providing our students with the best instruction and direction.

What brain cells do.
From the moment we walk on a pool deck (or beach) the 100 billion nerve cells in our brain, called neurons, control literally everything we do, experience or think while there. Are you excited about swimming? It’s because you’ve activated neurons in one region of the brain. Does it feel like an obligation or burden? Neurons in another region are “lighting up.” If something’s not quite right – crowded lanes, hot (or cold) water, pool shorter (15yd), or longer (50m) than you prefer, one group of neurons activates if you see that as an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone. If the situation discourages you, it’s another set of neurons. You “follow the black line” with one set of brain cells; devise clever tasks that ensure improvement with another set. And finally efficient strokes are produced by a precise set of neural signals. Ragged strokes come from different circuits.
The influence of “neurobiology” is not only complete, it’s tangible. When we understand that a turn-lemons-into-lemonade attitude reflects electrical activity in a specific region of the brain, rather than a chance aspect of personality, then we realize we’re capable of changing or improving literally any aspect of what makes us human. In the same way we make a conscious choice to activate neuromuscular circuits that tip the hand down, rather than scoop it up, on entry, we can choose to create thinking habits that lead to Kaizen behaviors and ultimately to mastery. This is the most empowering concept I have ever encountered in swimming—indeed in life!

With this knowledge, every TI student can assert the power to choose what kind of swimmer they will be and how much health and happiness it will bring. This isn’t just an inspiring and empowering idea; it’s supported by far better science than the traditional technique and training theories which govern how the non-TI world teaches and practices swimming. Our mission is to spread this inspiring new paradigm and to become the acknowledged experts on how to grow new brain cells through swimming.

Learning to think differently
A focus on growing brain cells in all aspects of swimming and teaching (or anything else) will inform how you interpret or explain, how you plan, teach and practice. I answer swimmers’ questions differently–and with greater continuity and consistency--now than I did several months ago.
As active, athletic people, and as coaches, we’ve been conditioned to think about swim training and performance in physiological terms. In coming months, you will learn to observe and interpret through a neural “lens” and to interpret the physiological aspects of swimming from a neural perspective first. Here are the advantages I see for viewing swimming as a form of neural-cell development.
1. Get better with age. Physiological capacity declines with age. The capacity to create new brain cells can remain as strong as ever. In fact, many key aspects of our neural control of swimming should improve with age and experience--for instance the ability to maintain focus, or to discern limb positions or muscle-loading levels, or other key aspects of self-awareness.
2. Grow more and better brain cells. We grow brain cells while running or cycling or any physical activity. But we grow more brain cells, and forge more robust and complex connections between them, while practicing swimming. This is because humans aren’t “ancestrally wired” for swimming and even basic efficiency requires far more thoughtful and examined practice. We can make a strong case that improvement-minded swimming is the ideal activity to promote both a healthy brain and healthy body.
3. The brain learns differently. Prevailing methods for building endurance and speed are based on understanding of how the body adapts physiologically to work. But the brain masters new tasks and develops new circuits in a very different way than how the body responds to physical work. Our methods will be based on understanding how the brain, rather than heart and lungs, operates.
4. Get the best of both. We will develop and strengthen neural circuits with physical tasks, performed thoughtfully. While the brain converts perceptions and intentions into actions, the muscles and cardiovascular system still perform the physical work–which means physical conditioning happens. However, the metabolic adaptations that occur, while we focus on motor programming, are specific to the task we are seeking to master, rather than imprecise and haphazard as when we “train energy systems.”
5. The brain is the master. Without an operating system and other software, a computer is just a collection of electronic parts. Without the brain and nervous system, the body is just blood, bone and meat. The actions of every limb, muscle, organ and capillary are governed by instructions from the brain. When you focus on programming the brain, you increase your control of outcomes. When you focus on training body parts—without primary consideration of the role of the brain—you get random and unpredictable outcomes.
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May your laps be as happy as mine.

My TI Story
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Old 12-11-2009
shuumai shuumai is offline
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Excellent. Do you cite any references? I know they exist because I've done some reading on the topic.

I hate to say this, but take comfort in the fact that I have developed a few gray hairs myself... As people age and become less active for whatever reason, their brains physically shrink. Older, inactive people could benefit just from starting a walking routine. That will grow some neurons. However, use-it-or-lose-it still applies to the new neurons. So either the physical exercise needs to challenge your brain to form new connections, or you need to go and learn sudoku or something while your brain is primed for learning.

Here is some support for my claims: http://biomed.gerontologyjournals.or...act/61/11/1166

I love the fact that we can change our own biology.

Last edited by shuumai : 12-11-2009 at 04:53 PM.
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Old 12-11-2009
Rhoda Rhoda is offline
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Last spring I was reading a book called "The Brain That Changes Itself", by Norman Dodge M.D.. It's mostly about revolutionary techniques being used to rehabilitate stroke and brain-damage patients, but much of the neuroplasticity advice could apply to the rest of us in everyday life, especially when learning something like swimming.
I experienced a little of this neuroplasticity when I developed nerve problems shortly after making the switch from manual to CAD drafting back in the mid-90s. After having to learn to work left-handed, I discovered that other activities (using a screw-driver etc.) became easier with the left hand as well.
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Old 12-11-2009
terry terry is offline
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Shuumai
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.
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May your laps be as happy as mine.

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Old 12-11-2009
shuumai shuumai is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rhoda View Post
Last spring I was reading a book called "The Brain That Changes Itself", by Norman Dodge M.D.. It's mostly about revolutionary techniques being used to rehabilitate stroke and brain-damage patients, but much of the neuroplasticity advice could apply to the rest of us in everyday life, especially when learning something like swimming.
Thank you for mentioning that book. I'm going out to get it from my local library today. I've been scouring information to help my father and that book sounds like a good source. (He has trouble with walking and handwriting due to some undiagnosed neurodegeneration.) I really want to get him into a pool, but that isn't likely to happen. That's a shame since the pool would challenge his systems in a good and gentle way while maybe providing a greater sense of ease and freedom.

Apparently the mindfulness and thoughtfulness of the TI way can lead to better living. ^_-
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Old 12-11-2009
shuumai shuumai is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by terry View Post
...
The "..." meaning all of what you just wrote. Wow. I found your comment about my comment more engaging than the original material in your RFC (request for comment). That might be because I've been reading about the topic in general for months, so my interested might have trailed off as I read. Or maybe because your comment was more personal. The comment just connected with me more. It flowed like it was...in the zone. hehe
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Old 12-11-2009
Grant Grant is offline
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Thanks for the two posts this morning Terry. They are very enlightening and provide more examples of how you keep TI fresh and new and have been doing so for a long time.
At age 74 I have benefited from many of the aspects you speak of. In the happiness/mental field and of course the swimming field . The last year I have noticed some slippage in my mental accuity and thank my lucky stars that I have stayed active and the resulting sliipage has been minimized. All the same the slippage is disconcerting so it is serendipitus that you bring this subject to our attention and it gives me a gentle kick in the butt to play harder (as in pay attention) with these ideas.
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Old 12-11-2009
shuumai shuumai is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by terry View Post
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
I saw that book at the library a few books over from Rhoda's book! Very interesting shelf! I only picked up one book, but I wanted to take about six of them. (The "Spark" book would be good for myself, but like I mentioned, I'm reading with my father in mind.)
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Old 12-11-2009
shuumai shuumai is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Grant View Post
At age 74 I have benefited from many of the aspects you speak of. In the happiness/mental field and of course the swimming field . The last year I have noticed some slippage in my mental accuity and thank my lucky stars that I have stayed active and the resulting sliipage has been minimized. All the same the slippage is disconcerting so it is serendipitus that you bring this subject to our attention and it gives me a gentle kick in the butt to play harder (as in pay attention) with these ideas.
Try table tennis. ^_- Dr. Amen says it's the best sport for the brain. I'd throw in a few carefully selected supplements as well.
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Old 12-11-2009
dwag4life dwag4life is offline
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Terry,

Thanks so much for such an interesting post. Although I don't have the exact quote or research in front of me, another angle to go with training the brain is to talk about sustained exercise that requires concentration and ADHD. Having been diagnosed with adult ADHD at the age of 33 about a year ago I read as much as I could and there is a strong argument for cardiovascular exercise and its effects on ADHD. It is equivalent to taking Ritalin and Prozak. Coming from running into swimming, I can second your view that swimming requires much more concentration. I generally swim early in the morning unmedicated and it is an excellent way to try and maintain focus, especially on longer swims.

Thanks,
Brogan
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