Challenge your brain by learning something new!
Trying something new can be intimidating. However, challenges are good for the brain! The brain grows and adapts when it is faced with new stimuli, and we can challenge it by exposing our minds and bodies to new environments, movements, and routines.
A large part of my role as a Kinesiologist and Strength Coach involves client education on body awareness and how to perform new physical movements. Individuals are diverse – different learning styles become evident, and some clients routinely pick up new moves faster than others. Sometimes I see a ‘light bulb’ illuminate in their heads, other times just frustration or determination in their eyes. If they’re just not getting it, often we just have a laugh and we move on to something else for that day.
I respect that these clients are committed to growing physically and mentally. They’ve stepped out of their comfort zones to engage in things they haven’t done before. These are clients of all ages and abilities.
It is never too late to try something new!
In the literature, declines in motor, cognitive, social, psychological, and physical function occur in those over the age of 65, and sometimes even earlier. But studies also show these declines are not inevitable .
The initial reward for my clients is often emotional success. However, whether they know it or not, they are also beginning to create structural adaptations in their brains that mitigate these age-related cognitive and physical declines…
These structural adaptations that occur are a result of neural plasticity, the ability of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) to physically alter the neurons in response to exercise, learning, or training. Through this series of changes, we facilitate neuroprotection, a process that shields the deterioration of neurons responsible for cognitive-motor performance. There are age-related ‘critical periods’ of neural plasticity in the developmental process (younger brains have a greater potential for better skill learning); however, research shows neural plasticity does remain present throughout life . Healthy brains are always receptive to new skills and information, demonstrating the ability to code new neural maps, networks, and pathways. Neurons that fire together wire together.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
Neurons require repetitions of the activity or exercise to create an adaptation. In the case of physical activity, this means practice! Key point: to create perfect pathways of movement, the repetitions that are practiced must be perfect! Incorrect repetitions create inefficient or flawed movements patterns. So, practice is where the art of coaching and learning happens…
- A coach must take the client’s learning style into account. If they are a visual learner, don’t describe what needs to happen. Show them!
- Scale the steps of an exercise or movement. Break it down. Some people may only grasp the first step of the Turkish Get Up in an hour, where others might master the concept of whole thing.
- Provide appropriate feedback. Teach the big picture first, and provide general cues. Allow the client to fine-tune the movement through practice. Only once the motor pattern is integrated should you provide specific detail-oriented cues. 
- Don’t compare clients to each other. Everyone learns at their own pace, in different ways – there is no master timeline for learning.
Why do I feel like I’ll just never get there?
Be patient! Learning takes time, and everyone works at a different pace.
There are certain lifestyle factors that work in your favour when learning new physical movements. Your exposure to movement as a child and throughout your young adult years contributes to your kinesthetic awareness and level of physical literacy. Those who participated in a variety of physical activities as a kid likely have greater movement competency when learning new physical skills. A genetic predisposition for good coordination may also play a role.
There is also the potential for critical challenges to present that are out of your control, including your actual age and the complexity of the movement skill. Though we can mitigate some of the cognitive-motor declines mentioned above, they may still play a role in slowing the learning process. Mastering more complex skills also require more neural pathways to be integrated, so these may present delays in learning.
It can be uncomfortable to try new things. Success doesn’t always come immediately, and in the case of physical activity, it can be extremely frustrating, demotivating, and sometimes even dangerous.
So, why bother? The neural adaptations that occur as a result of trying and learning new movements lead to age-related cognitive benefits. Learning itself combined with the general physical and mental benefits of exercise mean it’s even more valuable.
It’s up to you and a good coach to set smart goals en route to new skills and movements, and to scale the process to produce success. Good luck!
Written by Briana Kelly
Briana Kelly is a Kinesiologist and Strength Coach at it’s time! Fitness Results.
Click here to listen to Briana discuss this topic with Jon McComb on the “Fitness Segment,” which airs live every Thursday at 9:05 am CKNW 980am radio.
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