Learning a new sport could strengthen your brain in different ways than the familiar brain training exercises. It is part of growing research on the impacts of motor learning on the brain.
We all know that brain games like crossword puzzles, sudoku and even Wordle are good for the old thinker. But very few of us associate motor activity with brain function. Past studies have already shown that regular exercise changes the brain by increasing cells in the parts of the brain responsible for memory and thinking.
But more recent research suggests that learning a new physical skill can have significant effects on brain strength. Researchers found that when mice were introduced to a complicated type of running wheel, in which the rungs were spaced in irregular patterns, such that the mice had to learn a new stutter-step type of running, their brains changed significantly.
Learning to use these new wheels led to increased myelination of neurons in the animals’ motor cortexes. Myelination is the process by which parts of a brain cell are insulated, so that the messages between neurons can proceed more quickly and smoothly. It was previously believed that myelination in the brain occurs almost exclusively during infancy and childhood and then slows or stops altogether.
However, the mice running on the new wheels showed notable increases in the myelination of the neurons in their motor cortex even though they were adults.
Other mice that ran on normal wheels for the same period of time showed no increase in myelination. Scientists concluded that learning the new physical skill had changed the adult mice brains, where practicing a mastered, familiar skill had not.
While further research is warranted, many scientists believe that motor skills are as cognitively challenging as traditional brain training methods. However, by giving a new sport a try, you are not only improving your brain strength, but you are also getting the added health benefits of exercise – something brain training on a computer or with a crossword puzzle just can’t provide. So, this spring, get out there and try something new (or even something you haven’t done in a while), whether it’s biking, yoga, or a . Your body will thank you in more ways than one!