Tag Archives: brain plasticity

The New Dietary Guidelines and Running versus Joggling

It seems almost everyone I know is talking about the new dietary guidelines. In large part, this is because they significantly depart from the old recommendations, such as eating a low-fat diet to reduce heart disease risk. This is no longer recommended, since science has found that the type of fat is more important than total fat. They still recommend reducing saturated fat, and reducing meat and animal food consumption to help achieve this. They also recommend reducing animal food consumption for environmental reasons.

Ultimately, what do the new recommendations mean for vegans? Ginny Messina RD has written an excellent post on the new dietary recommendations, The 2015 Dietary Guidelines, What Will They Mean for Vegans?, and I suggest you read it. Her most important point, which I am in full agreement with:

It doesn’t really impact my own advocacy for animals, though. I know very well that findings on nutrition and health are always changing. I know that nutrition research is far more conflicting than concurring. And I don’t see much point to building advocacy around facts that may change tomorrow.


On the subject of joggling, Alex Hutchinson has written an interesting article titled Brain Plasticity in Endurance vs Skill Sports in Runner’s World. Actually, the article doesn’t mention anything about joggling or juggling, but the study he cites implies some extra benefits for joggling over running. I’ve always wanted to know if skill sports were better for brain plasticity than endurance sports, and it seems this article tentatively suggests they are. Of course, any aerobic exercise is good for the brain, but it appears that dancing, or figure skating(or any exercise that involves more complex “gross motor skills”) may provide some extra benefits over running. The same could probably be said about joggling, though I must admit that I am very biased. I also suspect that trail running may be slightly more beneficial for brain plasticity than road running.

So when it comes to exercise, go beyond just trying to improve your endurance or speed, try challenging your coordination and balance in novel ways. The more you learn, the easier it is to learn new tasks, and the better it is for your brain.

Update: Alex Hutchinson wrote an even more interesting follow-up article to the article posted above a few weeks later titled Fighting Cognitive Decline with Dodgeball and Juggling. In this follow-up, he actually does mention juggling as an example of an exercise that involves “gross motor skills” that may provide additional brain benefits over endurance exercise, but not joggling. He wrote this follow-up after he got an email from Nicholas Berryman(a physiologist at the Quebec National Institute of Sport) in response to the first article, who cited 3 scientific papers.

While the cognitive benefits of cardio, and strength training to a lesser extent are already established, and their mechanisms largely understood(increased blood-flow to the brain and increased nerve growth factors when it comes to cardio) according to Hutchinson:

What Berryman pointed out is preliminary evidence for a third mechanism, triggered by gross motor training – things like balance and coordination training, or even learning skills like juggling.

While this is all very fascinating, it is already known that learning just about any skill causes changes in the brain. Learning certain skills, like learning a new language, or learning to play an instrument, is associated with preventing or slowing cognitive decline in many studies. This leads to the question: Does juggling benefit the brain in ways that cardio alone can’t? Besides this, does learning gross motor skills that involve improvements in coordination and balance(juggling, or rock-climbing), benefit the brain more than learning to play an instrument, or learning to play chess?

As Hutchinson points out, the preliminary evidence for additional benefits of gross motor skills is encouraging. However, in the mean time, we shouldn’t have to wait for definitive answers before taking dance or juggling lessons, or going on a rock climbing adventure, if only for the fun of it.


Golf, Juggling and neural plasticity

The process of learning a new skill often results in subtle changes in brain structure, roughly analogous to muscle growth in response to strength-training. This happens in response to learning how to juggle, but this also appears to happen in response to learning to play golf, and, in my opinion, also happens in response to other sports.

According to Training-induced neural plasticity in golf novices, by the University of Zurich:

Previous neuroimaging studies in the field of motor learning have shown that learning a new skill induces specific changes of neural gray and white matter in human brain areas necessary to control the practiced task. Former longitudinal studies investigating motor skill learning have used strict training protocols with little ecological validity rather than physical leisure activities, although there are several retrospective and cross-sectional studies suggesting neuroprotective effects of physical leisure activities. In the present longitudinal MRI study, we used voxel-based morphometry to investigate training-induced gray matter changes in golf novices between the age of 40 and 60 years, an age period when an active life style is assumed to counteract cognitive decline. As a main result, we demonstrate that 40 h of golf practice, performed as a leisure activity with highly individual training protocols, are associated with gray matter increases in a task-relevant cortical network encompassing sensorimotor regions and areas belonging to the dorsal stream. A new and striking result is the relationship between training intensity (time needed to complete the 40 training hours) and structural changes observed in the parieto-occipital junction. Thus, we demonstrate that a physical leisure activity induces training-dependent changes in gray matter and assume that a strict and controlled training protocol is not mandatory for training-induced adaptations of gray matter.

Not earth-shattering news by any means, except for the part at the end about the relationship between training intensity and brain changes. This study simply reinforces what we already know, that playing sports and staying active can help the brain(I know, some people don’t consider golf to be a sport, but it does require skill). It would be great to compare the results of playing golf with juggling, but as far as I am concerned, no one has done this.

As for me, I never play golf since I find it boring and it is not intense enough. But that’s just me. I prefer juggling, joggling and hiking. An advantage of juggling is you can do it almost anywhere, even while running.

Whatever you do, if you want to protect your brain from aging, learn a new athletic skill. Try as many different sports or activities as possible until you find something that you love doing. The journey is as important as the destination. If you can’t find something you like, invent a new sport!

Exercise and schizophrenia

Let’s have some fun today. Come with me deep into the human brain and have a look at what exercise can do for those suffering from schizophrenia. We’ve already explored how it may be beneficial for those with OCD(obsessive compulsive disorder), but I think it would be more interesting to see what exercise can do for those with a more “serious” mental condition.

Here is a list of the common symptoms of schizophrenia:

1) Characteristic symptoms: Two or more of the following, each present for much of the time during a one-month period (or less, if symptoms remitted with treatment).
Disorganized speech, which is a manifestation of formal thought disorder
Grossly disorganized behavior (e.g. dressing inappropriately, crying frequently) or catatonic behavior
Negative symptoms: Blunted affect (lack or decline in emotional response), alogia (lack or decline in speech), or avolition (lack or decline in motivation)
If the delusions are judged to be bizarre, or hallucinations consist of hearing one voice participating in a running commentary of the patient’s actions or of hearing two or more voices conversing with each other, only that symptom is required above. The speech disorganization criterion is only met if it is severe enough to substantially impair communication.
2) Social or occupational dysfunction: For a significant portion of the time since the onset of the disturbance, one or more major areas of functioning such as work, interpersonal relations, or self-care, are markedly below the level achieved prior to the onset.
3) Significant duration: Continuous signs of the disturbance persist for at least six months. This six-month period must include at least one month of symptoms (or less, if symptoms remitted with treatment).


Based on some of these symptoms, it looks like it may be difficult to motivate some people with schizophrenia to adopt a regular exercise regimen. There is a vast spectrum of severity of symptoms of this condition, with evidence that schizophrenia is correlated with some brain abnormalities(though this is not used to diagnose it).

According to the Department of Psychiatry, The Saarland University Hospital, Homburg, Germany:

Hippocampal volume is lower than expected in patients with schizophrenia; however, whether this represents a fixed deficit is uncertain. Exercise is a stimulus to hippocampal plasticity.

The results and conclusion of their research:


Following exercise training, relative hippocampal volume increased significantly in patients (12%) and healthy subjects (16%), with no change in the nonexercise group of patients (-1%). Changes in hippocampal volume in the exercise group were correlated with improvements in aerobic fitness measured by change in maximum oxygen consumption (r = 0.71; P = .003). In the schizophrenia exercise group (but not the controls), change in hippocampal volume was associated with a 35% increase in the N-acetylaspartate to creatine ratio in the hippocampus. Finally, improvement in test scores for short-term memory in the combined exercise and nonexercise schizophrenia group was correlated with change in hippocampal volume (r = 0.51; P < .05).

These results indicate that in both healthy subjects and patients with schizophrenia hippocampal volume is plastic in response to aerobic exercise.

While this study looked at the brain plasticity of schizophrenics, it didn’t monitor any improvements in living with their condition. Luckily, other researchers have explored if exercise can improve the lives of schizophrenics.

After examining many studies in the scientific literature, the Schizophrenia Bulletin reports that:

Although studies included in this review are small and used various measures of physical and mental health, results indicated that regular exercise programs are possible in this population and that they can have healthful effects on both the physical and mental health and well being of individuals with schizophrenia. Larger randomized studies are required before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.

Although it can’t “cure” schizophrenia, it looks like exercise should be included in the treatment of schizophrenia and other mental conditions whenever possible. I don’t think there is anything that provides nearly as many benefits to health as exercise. Healthy body, healthy mind.

Musicians have larger corpus collosums

The benefits of playing a musical instrument are many, but did you know that if you learned to play an instrument early enough you may have a much larger corpus collosum than non-musicians?

What is this strange thing you ask? No no no, it is not what you are sitting on, that is the gluteus maximus. The corpus collosum(CC) connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It’s basically a bridge, but don’t tell the government or they will put tolls on it. Anyway, the CC appears to be significantly larger in musicians who started studying music before the age of 7:

Using in-vivo magnetic resonance morphometry it was investigated whether the midsagittal area of the corpus callosum (CC) would differ between 30 professional musicians and 30 age-, sex- and handedness-matched controls. Our analyses revealed that the anterior half of the CC was significantly larger in musicians. This difference was due to the larger anterior CC in the subgroup of musicians who had begun musical training before the age of 7. Since anatomic studies have provided evidence for a positive correlation between midsagittal callosal size and the number of fibers crossing through the CC, these data indicate a difference in interhemispheric communication and possibly in hemispheric (a)symmetry of sensorimotor areas. Our results are also compatible with plastic changes of components of the CC during a maturation period within the first decade of human life, similar to those observed in animal studies.

Studies like this are basically studying this really neat property of the brain called neuroplasticity. This basically means the brain can adapt or form new connections in response to learning. The brain adapts to learning how to juggle in a similar manner to how it adapts to learning to play an instrument. But you knew that already.

While brain plasticity is a feature of the brain at any age, young brains are more plastic than older ones. As the study suggested, the musicians with the much larger corpus collosums had been playing an instrument before age 7; learning after this age may not have the same permanent effect on optimizing growth of the corpus collosum.

This suggests a window of opportunity in learning things. The window isn’t completely closed after a certain age, there are after all many amazing musicians who started to learn to play well after age 7 obviously. On the other hand, how many 40 year old world famous virtuoso pianists are out there who have only been playing since the age of 35? Besides me, of course?

At this stage of research, we don’t really know if having a larger CC actually means a person is smarter(children who play an instrument regularly tend to do better in school, but that doesn’t mean that being a musician necessarily makes them smarter). On the other hand, it can’t be a bad thing. And since we are on the subject of the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, remember that the differences between the right and left hemispheres are mostly a myth. A very stubborn myth too.

Even if you can’t stimulate your corpus collosum to grow bigger after a certain age, keeping your brain active by learning something new is still the best way to keep your brain healthy.

How juggling is very different from other forms of exercise

I hope everyone is having a good year so far. I am slowly improving my juggling technique and want to share my impressions of the road to getting to advanced juggling and the benefits of juggling.

One of the worst things about juggling is it is very unforgiving of poor technique and effort. But this is also one of the best things about juggling. Not giving it your all means you are much more likely to drop the balls. You can’t fool yourself into thinking you are putting in more effort than you really are.

It is often too easy to fool yourself with other forms of exercise, while walking or even running, on certain exercises machines, or doing martial arts or dance aerobics, etc. In this way, jumping rope is similar to juggling in that you can’t get away with poor technique – the rope will eventually catch your leg if you do it wrong. This is one of the reasons I sometimes recommend jumping rope as a prerequisite to fitness juggling. The rope won’t lie to you. In juggling, the balls won’t lie to you either. A good juggling form is a thing of beauty, and in beauty there is truth.

This makes juggling balls one of the best, most accurate feedback mechanisms when it comes to fitness. They are an excellent teacher for so many different exercisers, even if juggling or joggling isn’t their main form of exercise. This would probably make joggling one of the best forms of cross-training for running – since joggling is less forgiving of bad posture than running, it would be a good idea to use your joggler’s posture while running, to ensure good form. Screenshot-MVI_0579.AVI-2

Good form and coordination requires you to pay attention, to use your brain. Juggling is one of the very few exercises outside of playing some sports that targets your brain. Studies even show brain growth in parts of the brain that control movement. Think of the brain like a muscle – use it or lose it. It would require a whole series of posts or even a dissertation to explain why juggling is so neglected in the fitness world, and how to overcome this.