When people think about what keeps the brain stimulated, things which might come to mind are Sudoku, reading poetry and learning a new language.
This is complex thinking commonly referred to as “higher-order” cognition and results in activity within specific areas of the brain. It also promotes plasticity (or physical changes) in those areas.
However, the latest research suggests that learning physical activities such as snowboarding or tennis can also change and strengthen the brain, particularly in midlife.
The research concluded that running and other types of physical activities increase the number of new brain cells created in parts of the brain linked to thinking and memory.
Indeed, a study with mice found that when they were introduced to a complicated type of running wheel (and had to learn a new, stutter-step type of running) their brains changed significantly.
In fact, learning to use these new wheels led to increased myelination of neurons in their motor cortexes.
Neurological studies in people have also shown that learning a new physical skill as an adult (such as juggling) leads to increases in the volume of gray matter in parts of the brain related to movement control.
“We have a tendency to admire motor skills,” said Dr. John Krakauer, director of the Center for the Study of Motor Learning and Brain Repair at Johns Hopkins University.
Indeed, he told The New York Times
that while we like watching athletes in action, most of us make little effort to hone our motor skills in adulthood, and very few of us try to expand them by learning a new sport. The consequence is that we could be short-changing our brains.
He added that motor skills are as cognitively challenging in their way as traditional methods such as crossword puzzles or brain-training games. Not just that, you also get physically healthy in the process.