A plethora of body training approaches abounds today, but sometimes trainers give little attention to treating the brain as if it were a muscle needing sets, repetitions, and even overload. The original term “plasticity” regarding brain training dates back to 1890 in Principles of Psychology by William James. And lately it has evolved to the full term “neuroplasticity,” applying similar fitness concepts of adaptation, sets, repetitions, timed performance, and specificity.(1) Recent research has revealed the importance of neuroplasticity training combined with physical movement skills to strengthen, improve and overall change brain regions.(2,3) Learning to train the brain’s different capacities can help manage anger, fear and depression,(4) plus serve as a viable complement—and sometimes alternative— to intervention brain medication.(5) Combining the usual theory-with-practice approach consistent with AFAA methodology, this article gives both practical and affordable tips for adding neuroplasticity brain training into protocols for today’s group fitness instructor and personal trainer.
The Sides of the Brain
Many brain specialists have written on the complicated nature of the sides of the brain and their importance. For this article, the most valuable take-away urges trainers to integrate games that tax not only individual sides and areas of the brain, but also the brain’s sections working collectively. The left hemisphere of the brain mostly controls these skills: analytical, language, math, memories of names and words, motor skills (right side of the body) and speech. Conversely, the right hemisphere of the brain mainly controls: creativity (including problem solving), emotions, memories of images (such as faces), spatial zones, patterns of details, and motor skills of the left side of the body.
To be considered neuroplastic training, the mental tasks need a simultaneous physical task as well.6 Asking a client to execute any type of brain skill, even having him/her seated doing sudoku puzzles, for example, indeed works a particular area of the brain, but such activity does not constitute neuroplasticity training because physical movement must accompany the brain’s task.
Anyone who has ever needed to engage in an even moderately challenging brain skill while walking and talking, such as recalling one’s first memory or finishing a complicated math problem with no paper handy, will confirm how much easier it becomes to stop and think. Stopping the body’s movement serves as way to decrease the sensory input to the brain and allow it to concentrate on other processes. While that may prove more comfortable, again it does not make for neuroplasticity training because the body must be moving. Therefore, instructors and trainers must be aware of the need to choose and adapt the appropriate level of physical movement for client(s) to accompany any of the suggestions outlaid here.
“What did you have for dinner last night?” seems an innocuous question between trainer and client. To be sure, the answer depends on the client’s ability to use a certain amount of memory, but this does not constitute neuroplasticity training. However, asking a client to list in reverse order what he or she ate for dinner the previous night while the moving (as in squatting, for example) constitutes neuroplasticity training for two reasons. First, the task requires the mind to work simultaneously with the body engaged in a movement skill. Second, and more specifically, the memory-recall and spatial skills of reverse order come from right-brain tasks.
Another common example could be asking a client to make a list alternating between fruits and vegetables while doing alternating forward lunges. Lunging forward with the left leg, he could say “broccoli,” for instance, and then when lunging forward with the right leg, he could say “pineapple.” This also constitutes neuroplasticity training because the mind works while the body engages, and the problem solving (alternating between fruits and vegetables without stopping) are right-brain tasks. Typically, instructors and trainers have students count sets and reps out loud, but this does little to tax the brain and quickly can become almost mindlessly hypnotic. Problem solving in this example not only allows the trainer to do the counting, but also gives the clients and classes additional workload toward neuroplasticity training.
Sections of the Brain
Several key sections make up the brain. When they work in synchronicity during a moment of particular focus, this becomes an illustration of the work of the mind. The term “mind-body” in its truest sense comes from anything that originates in the brain as conscious movement with form, purpose, dedication and concentration. Using the brain in this manner, in its fullest capacity, all such work comes under the mind-body training umbrella.
The sections of the brain serve different purposes. Or each region of the brain serves a different purpose. The cerebrum is the largest portion of the brain and contains sections in both the right and left hemispheres: the frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobes. The frontal lobe controls several elements such as creative thought and problem solving, including decision making, intellect, judgment, behavior, attention, abstract thinking, physical reactions, muscle movements, coordinated movements, smell and overall personality. The parietal lobe deals with comprehension, language, reading, internal stimuli, tactile sensation and sensory comprehension. The temporal lobe controls auditory memories, speech, language and behavior. Finally, the occipital lobe controls vision.
The cerebellum, important for fitness instructors and trainers to understand, sits at the lower backsection of the brain and controls balance, posture, and coordination of motor skills and movements.
Other sections of the brain containing glands comprise the limbic system. The amygdala helps the body respond to emotions, memories and fear. Its small shape resembles a raw almond, and the word itself means “almond” in Greek.
The hippocampus allows learning and memory of emotions, specifically converting temporary memories into permanent memories. The hippocampus also helps people analyze and remember spatial relationships, allowing for accurate movements.
The hypothalamus region of the brain controls mood, thirst, hunger and temperature. It also contains glands that control the hormonal processes throughout the body. When clients understand the true feelings of physical hunger, this involves the hypothalamus. Making healthy choices about foods and portions involves the frontal lobe’s decision-making properties.
The thalamus in the center of the brain controls attention span, pain sensing, and the input of constant sensations moving in and out of the brain.
In the brain stem reside the origins of life function, including our heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing. Perhaps most importantly, this section connects all of the aforementioned sections of the brain with the rest of the body through the spinal cord.
Chocolate: Thoughts and Actions
In an effort to simplify the brain’s sections, let’s use chocolate as a practical example that illustrates the brain in action with the following thoughts and sayings. “I remember the first time I had dark chocolate truffles in Europe” and “I hope to find some that are as good” reflect the hippocampus (emotional memories). “I’m hungry for dark chocolate” uses the hypothalamus (hunger). “I remember that in French the truffles are called ‘truffe’” uses the temporal lobe (memories of sound, language skills). “In a general sense, I love all kinds of dark chocolate” comes from the parietal lobe (abstract thinking). You search on the Internet where to buy European chocolate using the parietal lobe (reading skills). “I’m going to walk to the chocolate shop to buy some dark chocolate truffles” reflects the frontal lobe (decision-making and physical movement). “Walking into the chocolate store itself, I see the specific truffles I want to buy” uses the occipital lobe (vision). Finally, “I’m now eating my dark chocolate truffles, savoring each one as I bring them to my mouth and let them melt on my tongue” uses the cerebellum (coordinated movements).
Training Mind as Muscle
Before undertaking any of the suggested starting points for neuroplasticity training, it should be understood that we can train the brain as a muscle. Research reveals that the more as individual practices any brain skill, the same concepts of overload, specificity, fatigue and rest apply as they do with traditional training.(7) Furthermore, trainers considering the addition of neuroplasticity training to their clients’ regimen may also consider the traditional approach of three sets of 8 to 15 repetitions where possible, based within the framework of following practical suggestions as appropriate for each client. Simply engaging in a skill or two per traditional 60-minute session does little to improve the brain’s function over time because, like muscles, sets and repetitions of brain games work best.(8)