Fitness Magazine

The Power of Mental Exercise, Part 1

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

The Power of Mental Exercise, Part 1

The New Novel by Winslow Homer

Recently we had a query from one of our readers who asked to know each staff member’s fitness regimen (see Friday Q&A: How do you keep fit?). Nina wrote about our responses in her post Decide Each Day What to Do that I thought was not only fun but appropriate and interesting.  However, I realized that while posting my reply to Nina, I committed a faux pas. I had missed mentioning mental exercises as part of my fitness regimen that take up 30-45 minutes of my time daily.
Now you may wonder why I am attaching so much importance to mental exercises. According to Ayurveda and Yoga, disease first begins in the mind, and when this is not checked, it spreads to the body where it shows up as specific symptoms. Today, Western medical science accepts that there is a powerful mind-body connection through which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors can directly affect our health. Science has well documented the role of the mind in the disease process and has explanation of how our thoughts and feelings affect our physiology.
You need to be mentally fit to ward off any ill health or disease. Mental fitness is just as important as physical health and shouldn’t be neglected. Mental fitness is exactly what it sounds like: keeping the brain and emotional health in a healthy state by performing  mentally stimulating tasks. Mental exercises refer to a series of exercises that help you to be more alert, think rationally and logically, make sound and correct decisions and boost a declining memory. Incorporating mental exercises into your life can help you reap the benefits of a sharper mind and a healthier body for years to come. For this reason, it’s not surprising that in general people who possess a higher level of mental agility are also physically healthy. Individuals who exercise their mind regularly live significantly longer without any signs of age-associated diseases.
Research findings indicate that humans actually build/rebuild brain cells throughout life. Several regions of the brain that are involved in memory, reflection, decision making, planning and emotional control have neural stem cells that can mature into functioning neural cells. Learning/stimulating environments maintain, build and remodel neural network connectivity and also trigger production of nerve growth factors that stimulate new neural connections. The brain actively grows and rewires itself in response to stimulation and learning. Mental exercises help you see the world in a new way and strengthen your neural networks. All of us are devoted to exercise to bulk up our bodies, but remember the concept of “use it or lose it” applies not to just the muscles but also to the neural pathways and connections in our brains. Several studies report that our brain grows stronger from use and from being challenged in the same way that muscles grow stronger from exercise.
The phrase "our brain is plastic" refers to the brain's capacity to rewire itself through experience. When we learn new things, our brain puts out new neural branches and forms new connections among existing neurons. The brain is constantly changing, morphing and rewiring itself. Plasticity is the reason why stroke patients can relearn skills after a brain damage. Plasticity also explains how a healthy part of the brain might assume the job of a damaged part. Thus, the brain is continually re-sculpting itself in response to experience and learning. A mentally active individual’s brain is a dense forest of thickly branched neural connectivity trees. It is this neural density that provides the mental resistance that keeps the physical body strong that in turn promotes healthy aging. Research studies find that mental exercises, including reading and doing a puzzles, delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and other stress-associated disorders. In part 2 of this series, I will discuss a variety of exercises and activities that can successfully strengthen all the areas of the brain.
Until then you could choose to incorporate some form of mental exercises in your day. You may ask what kind of mental exercises? Since this is a yoga blog, I have come up with brain exercises that relate to yoga. Here’s a sample list that you could attempt:
  1. Next time you are in a yoga class and the teacher is providing instructions for a pose, try to recall the name of the pose in Sanskrit. It is a perfect way to stimulate the brain. Alternatively, try memorizing the Sanskrit names of yoga asanas and place the specific pose to the name (for example, several my students get confused about Parsvabakasana, Parsvakonasana, and Parsvauttanasana).
  2. Using your memory is a great mental exercise. The next time you complete a 60- or a 90-minute yoga class, attempt to write down some or the entire sequence of the asanas (in the same order) that your teacher taught you in the class.
  3. A simple way to stimulate new nerve connections in the brain is by using the opposite or non-dominant hand/side for routine tasks. When it comes specifically to Yoga, if you have a habit of doing the poses right side first, practice the same by starting on the left side before the right and vice versa.
  4. Changing your daily habits and routines will allow mental stimulation to occur as well-for example. Take a completely different route to your yoga studio. This is a new experience that builds new connections and sets you on the path to mental fitness. And if you practice at home, try practicing in a different room or space in your house and either find or create an entirely new sequence to practice.
  5. Stimulate new neural network connections and brain growth by learning something new. Read yoga philosophy and learn the Sanskrit names for important yoga concepts (for example, vrittis, swadhyaya, dharana, vibhuti, samprajnata, and so on).
Guess what, to stimulate new nerve connections by using my non-dominate hand, I just used my left-hand for the computer mouse while writing this piece. And if I can do it successfully, you too can do it!

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog