Here is my third column for Atlantic Pedaler E-Zine to be published this week. The material will be familiar to blog readers as I've written about the subject matter before. Putting the whole of the ideas into one column has consumed a fair bit of energy over the past few weeks.
Several weeks ago I attended a lecture about neuroplasticity. That is a fairly new word and a fairly new area of study. Scientists are discovering that the brain is amazingly plastic; that is, able to adapt to change. We are now discovering that the brain, in certain areas, is able to grow new cells, something once thought impossible. And it makes new connections constantly. There is a whole new industry being promoted around "brain health", making new connections, and regenerating brain cells. Exercise your brain! Do crossword puzzles! Stave off Alzheimer's- do Sudoku! You've seen the headlines and heard about different "programs" that aim to improve your brain fitness.
There's no doubt that some mental exercise can help you relax, learn to concentrate, and perhaps help you become better at certain puzzles. But the best thing you can do for your brain is exercise your body and give your brain an optimal environment.
Exercise improves blood flow to all parts of your body, including your brain, and that improves oxygenation and the circulation of vital nutrients required by your brain for energy and function. Exercising your body involves a complex set of actions in the brain, causing neurons to fire all over the place in response, reorganizing and reinforcing the neural networks you already have and making new connections.
An optimal environment for your brain is one free of physical impediments like alcohol or drugs, polluted air, improper amounts of sleep and stress. That's next to impossible, so reduce the impediments you are able to. You need to feed your brain as well as your body with a low fat, high fibre diet. And for me, the occasional chunk of chocolate (that's good for the mental health).
When I was first diagnosed with MS, I asked the doctors about rehab. Was there anything in particular that I could do to get back the right side of my body? Was there anything I could do to not lose it or anything else? The short answer was "No". MS is a disease of the central nervous system; it affects the communication ability of the nerves to and from the rest of the body. Trying to work limbs that wouldn't cooperate was next to useless. So no amount of rehab would help me get back what I had lost. For people with MS, rehab is used to learn how to do things differently.
As it turned out, the type of MS I have is called relapsing remitting. It went into remission and I eventually regained about 97% of what I had lost. The 3% I didn't get back is unnoticeable except to me and my neurologist. I hardly ever notice a deficit and no one else ever does, so I don't think about it much. But at the back of my mind for the past 10 years has been the idea of rehabilitation. It works for many stroke patients; it's a matter of training your brain to make new and/or different connections, to go around the injured area. Wouldn't this somehow work for people with MS? It was and still is a good question.
So what does this have to do with cycling you might ask? Besides being an excellent way to exercise your body, cycling has an added benefit for your brain. The simple act of riding your bike requires paying attention to your surroundings, traffic, pedestrians, rocks and mud holes. This mental stimulation while biking is going to help your brain and probably help generate new connections. I suspect the combination of mental stimulation while exercising is what has attracted me to it in the first place.
Did I know all this two years ago when I began cycling? Nope. I just knew that I had finally found an exercise that I loved. Now I know that not only is it good for my body, it's good for my brain. Whether or not there are new connections being made or new cells being generated, cycling is good for me. Just recently the National MS Society in the U.S. awarded a large grant to the University of Northern Carolina for MS research that includes developing an MS-specific curriculum in physical therapy. I can only hope that their research will involve using the brain's plastic ability to overcome some of the disability MS causes. In the meantime, I will exercise my brain by jumping on the bike.