Today I’m very excited and honoured to be doing a short talk about exercise and the brain for Dame Darcey Bussell’s Diverse Dance Mix (DDMIX) organisation, which brings dance fitness into schools and all sorts of other places by training teachers to deliver a wonderfully diverse (obviously!) mix (see what I’m doing) of dance (…) styles. I had met Darcey and DDMIX’s lovely CEO, Giselle Parker, at an education conference in Dubai where we were all speaking earlier this year and we had some really interesting conversations about the mental and physical benefits of dance fitness.
I’m only speaking very briefly but there’s a lot I could say, so I will put a bit more detail here.
As this is an audience who probably won’t know my work, I need to say a bit about me first. After all, you shouldn’t listen to a total stranger you know nothing about. I might be a complete charlatan or have very little knowledge.
I’m known as The Teenage Brain Woman, mainly because of my book on the teenage brain, Blame My Brain – The amazing teenage brain revealed, first published in 2005. Although originally a novelist, I’ve spent the last 20 yrs building my understanding of certain aspects of the human brain, particularly how we learn, how we read, what makes us tick psychologically, and a mass of aspects of health and wellbeing.
Although most things to do with health and wellbeing are the same for all ages, I focus on adolescents as an audience. As well as Blame My Brain, I have written The Teenage Guide to Stress, The Teenage Guide to Friends, Life Online, Positively Teenage and Body Brilliant. I am lucky enough to be asked to travel all over the world delivering talks to teenagers, teachers, parents and other professionals.This year I’ve been to Dubai twice, Turkey, the Netherlands and Northern Ireland (well, not foreign but overseas!) and later this year I have China and Switzerland.
Being an author is a physically unhealthy occupation even when I’m not doing unhealthy travelling. Having said that, I’m probably among the most active of authors because I write most of the time at a standing desk and walking on a treadmill…
People ask why I specialise in young people
When I was younger, I had poor physical and mental health. I now understand that I have certain personality traits that make me likely not to look after myself: I’m an ambitious, perfectionist, over-thinking, over-sensitive, introverted, self-conscious, Type A personality who takes on too much, wants to do it all unrealistically well and now, and loses sleep over both success and failure.
But I’m self-employed, so I have to be well enough to work, or I can’t earn and won’t have a career. So I have to make and keep myself well. I have to prioritise my health, even if that sometimes means saying no to something or dropping an idea I wanted to carry through. For me, the worst thing would be to give a bad talk, a talk which the audience didn’t rate highly, or to be on poor form during a whole-day training day, which would sap the energy of the strongest workhorse.
Therefore, I take certain practical steps to stay well. I manage my wellbeing so that, even through a bad time – such as the truly horrible thing I’ve been going through for the last six months – I can stay well. I keep my “well of wellbeing” replenished.
How I do that informs the messages I share with young people
I teach what I wish I’d known back then, along with how I now stay well, mentally and physically. This is all backed up and underpinned, of course, by all the science now available to us, including neuroscience. I keep up-to-date with that. That’s my job.
The Table of Wellbeing
At the heart of my teaching is my four-legged Table of Wellbeing. The four legs are:
I tend to focus on relaxation because it’s the one most people, especially people like me, ignore. When we’re too busy, we think we have no time to relax. This is a terribly destructive mindset.
I’m also about to start writing a book about sleep, so I’ll be focusing on that a lot in future talks.
The great thing about EXERCISE is that exercise aids both SLEEP and RELAXATION
This makes the work of DDMIX and all its teachers incredibly important!
You’re all (I’m speaking to today’s audience here, not casual readers of this article!) exercise experts and presumably love exercise. It’s probably at the core of your being. But you know very well that not everyone does. I found it very hard to find exercise I enjoy. I don’t like team games or even games with partners and I spent a lot of time at school off games through arthritis, so I really wasn’t keen. Plus I hate being hot and sweaty! So for years I resisted, despite knowing that it is good for me.
Enjoying it is important. Knowing that something is “Good for us” is a weak motivation. It might make us start – all those New Year resolutions – but we won’t continue if we don’t like it. All those broken NY resolutions.
Then, about 18 months ago, I started running – it changed my life – my self-esteem, energy, health and fitness – and vastly increased my overall wellbeing. I don’t always enjoy it at the time but I always enjoy running downhill towards home and the rest of the day I’m buzzing with “I did that” – and with the chemical changes that exercise creates.
But we don’t want people to wait till they’re 57 before they try to find their way into fitness so I thought I’d share with you three specific things that science shows exercise does to the brain and therefore the body. Never underestimate how brain and body are not only connected but part of each other.
In my talk I had to do this very briefly, so there is a bit more detail here.
Three ways exercise helps the brain
- Neurogenesis – the production of new neurons
When I was young, we were taught that we are born with all the neurons we’ll ever have. But there’s been evidence from mice and rats for a long time that new neurons do grow at different times and that exercise is a trigger. There’s now what scientists are calling incontrovertible evidence that exercise boosts neurogenesis in human brains, too.
This happens mostly in the hippocampus – particularly the dentate gyrus – the area most associated with all sorts of learning and memory and the area which is most affected by age-related degeneration.
Exercise could have this affect on neurogenesis because exercise increases blood supply. Exercise also raises metabolic rate in the brain, helping “glial cells” do their jobs of nourishing neurons and clearing out debris of broken or faulty connections and dead cells.
Note also that exercise – depending on which exercise – uses various brain parts and some exercise uses more than others. It could be suggested (I’m suggesting it!) that exercise that uses more brain parts is therefore more desirable in some ways. If this is true then dance fitness may be even more useful than running, because running uses fewer brain parts. (Think about how running uses little concentration or coordination compared to dance, where you are learning and remembering a routine and make a number of different movements; you are also responding emotionally, using music.)
In short, in terms of building new neurons (and the connections or synapses between them), a great deal of research strongly suggests that exercise:
- Improves some types of learning
- Enhances “executive” cognitive skills, including higher-order functions such as planning and logic
- Protects against neural damage from stress
- Protects against neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, stroke and brain injury
You might find this research paper interesting for more detail: Massachusetts General Hospital. “How exercise generates new neurons, improves cognition in Alzheimer’s mouse: How to mimic the beneficial effects of exercise.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 September 2018.
Sleep is an extraordinarily important activity, strongly affecting pretty much every aspect of mental and physical health, including our likelihood of getting a range of diseases and how long we will live.
We know from a mass of research that exercise:
- Can help regulate the sleep/wake cycle (Circadian rhythm), especially if done regularly. The brain’s sleep clock reacts mostly to daylight and darkness but also to routines such as meals and exercise.
- Increases time spent in deep sleep. Deep sleep benefits our emotional state, immune system, cardiac health and creativity.
- Reduces stress, therefore increasing the chance of sleep. How exercise does this links to the next point.
- Mental health
Apart from the worrying fact that over-exercise and exercise-obsession can be part of a serious, life-threat eating disorder, in all other ways exercise benefits wellbeing and mental health and even protects against and mitigates mental illness such as anxiety and depression.
But how in brain terms?
- Endorphins – exercise releases endorphins, often called the brain’s “happy chemicals” and entirely legal! They make you feel good.
- Raising self-esteem: “I did that”. As well as the chemical endorphins, psychologically exercise raises your mood and how you feel about yourself. When i’ve been for a run in the morning, it keeps that feeling going all day.
- Meditation – some forms of exercise are like meditation with movement. You have just enough concentration focusing on the movement and this leaves space for you to send you mind where you want it to go.
- Occupies brain bandwidth to give you a break from worry – let me explain:
Although all types of exercise will have huge benefits on physical and mental health, not all will have that “break from worry” effect. Let me explain why and then you’ll see whether DDMIX comes near the top or not so near the top of exercise and fitness methods.
Things you need to know about brain bandwidth:
- As with wifi bandwidth, we have a fixed amount – we can’t find more.
- Everything we consciously do, physical or mental, takes some bandwidth – think of it as attention span.
- Some things take a little (easy, familiar things, such as walking for most people); some take a lot (difficult, unfamiliar things, such as playing a new musical instrument or learning to drive).
- One thing that takes a lot is worry – whether agitation, anxiety or distress.
- Some exercise takes relatively little – walking, jogging, gardening; others takes more – playing sport, anything which requires skills and concentration, such as dancing, especially with a routine
So, in my opinion, this puts dance fitness at the top of the list of exercise that is likely to:
- Exercise many areas of brain – creating new networks in all the areas being used
- Reduce stress by occupying lots of brain bandwidth and leave no room for negative thoughts and worry.
Add the fact that it improves sleep and you have three powerful brain-related reasons why what you do with DDMIX is a massive contribution to brain and body health.
Hooray! Dance away! (Just let me carry on running on my own, please.)
Edited to add: really enjoyed doing this talk so much! Absolutely delightful audience and to watch Darcey Bussell lead a dance session (and even to find myself joining in the warm up!) was a privilege. DDMIX is a wonderful organisation and you should all bring it into your schools!