gingko, crossword puzzles, fish oils - everyone's searching for the ma-gic potion for enhancing brain power and memory. But there's one mental booster you may not have heard of: the intelligent use of your muscles . Of course, any physical exercise - walking, swimming, yoga - is good for your brain, too, but to up the mental empowerment quotient pay attention to what you're doing muscle by muscle. Focusing establishes new neural pathways that can help sharpen the mind into old age and improve your ability to learn, remember and function.
Mindful motion, however, is just a start. The next step is to introduce unusual movements into your day. Thanks to the modern world of chairs, desks and cars, most of us move in highly repetitive and restrictive patterns. When you shift your body in ways that are novel, experts say, you expand the capabilities of your nervous system. Every time you choose a change (for example, turning a doorknob with your left hand if you usually use your right), you get this effect. These insights come from the study of childhood development and the way physicality opens up new pathways in the human brain. The right movements can even help people who've had strokes or other nervous system injuries recover lost functioning by stimulating the brain to reorganize itself.
Finally, you can explore movement systems like Brain Gym, Bartenieff Fundamentals and others that are specifically designed to expand both muscular vocabulary and the ability to process information.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"Movement is the source of all our learning. In hearing, cilia inside the ear move, sending information into the brain. In vision, your eyes must move to connect to the world. You can't have touch without movement, and the response creates movement in the nervous system. Awareness of movement is about mindfulness. Mindfulness has been shown to be one of the most important factors in (preventing the deterioration of) aging. Attention and intention are really an important part of maintaining an active brain. Pay attention to your body instead of trying to be distracted from it so you can get through your exercise."
DIANNE WOODRUFF , PhD, certified movement analyst, practitioner, Bartenieff Fundamentals of Movement, Oakville
"The educational model of Brain Gym allows tremendous breakthroughs in our ability to learn things we've been unable to learn. The cross-crawl (for example) gets all parts of the brain and body working together better. The simplest version is touching your knee with your opposite elbow, then repeat with the other side. You should ideally take a two-to-five-minute movement break every hour, particularly when working at a computer screen or other two-dimensional surface - these stress the nervous system."
DON WETSEL , MA, Brain Gym instructor, international faculty member, Educational Kinesiology Foundation, Fairfield, VA
"To stimulate learning and brain function and slow down aging, stimulate the body to (perform) novel movements. If you're getting older and find your balance getting worse, you can stimulate yourself by standing on one foot. Learn new dance steps. When you stimulate your body to move in ways you're not used to or find expression through a new movement, you may also open yourself to being aware or present to some parts of yourself that were hidden."
MARGIT ASSELSTINE , doctorate in counselling psychology, registered movement therapist and educator, Toronto
"Babies progress through a series of movement patterns in relation to gravity during their first year. Play on the floor is central. In the locomotion stage, cross-lateral creeping and walking integrate both hemispheres of the brain. These developmental movements stimulate brain areas and their related reflexes, helping establish an upright posture, a strong central axis, good balance, motor coordination and a sense of personal space. Adults can benefit from doing the fundamental movements practised by babies -they will make vital body connections that will carry through into all their activities of daily living."
BEVERLY STOKES , founder of the Centre for Experiential Learning, Toronto, author, Amazing Babies: Essential Movement For Your Baby In The First Year
"If specific areas of people's brains are injured it may be difficult for them to produce movement in one hand. The activity in that area of the brain can be enhanced through doing specific movements. We're trying to understand what mechanisms allow that to occur. Learning novel movements not only stimulates an area of the brain responsible for movement but activates a whole network of regions that include both motor- and cognitive-related areas. You have to pay attention to the movement."
RICHARD STAINES , scientist, Centre for Stroke Recovery, Sunnybrook & Women's College Health Sciences Centre, assistant professor, school of kinesiology and health science, York University