How often do you exercise your brain?
You might be wondering what I am referring to and no, I’m not trying to insult anyone.
Until I crashed and smashed my head into a concrete bridge, I never knew the value of exercising my brain. Okay, I read a lot, listen to audio books and do all the normal stuff, but I am talking about seriously exercising my brain.
After I hit my head, I realized through several doctors how much of a miracle I was not only alive, but that I knew who I was and could remember anything at all. I started right away with Hyperbaric Oxygen treatments because I had read in the past how powerful the therapy is for brain trauma. I also took extra fish oils and CoQ10 among other supplements to help my body repair.
Of course I started exercising again as soon as I was allowed – running with my left arm velcroed to my chest. Short slow runs, but running nonetheless. My mental recovery sped up dramatically once I started running. It was nothing short of amazing. I went from being awake and lucid for 90 minutes max in January, to three of four hours, then five, then eight, then half a day and within a few months I was back to living a fairly normal life.
The challenge of running, being outside and all the fresh air had stimulated my brain in ways I didn’t fully understand, I just knew I felt better after I exercised. My neurologist cleared me as fully recovered and I thought things were coming along just great. I was set for surgery in July to remove the plates in my shoulder and arm then it was time to get back to normal.
As the months passed though, normal was not coming along quite as well like I thought it would. I began to work too much and seriously battle fatigue on a daily basis. I started to get frustrated and ended my four month ban on coffee that was recommended to me by one of my doctors. Soon I was having more and more coffee to get through my day and stay focused.
Little things like vision problems, balance problems, difficulty typing as fast as I used to, dropping things began to bother me. Things that probably nobody else noticed, but I did. It was little things like writing for the paper and having to constantly fix the mistake at the start of a sentence where my left hand held on to the shift key a fraction too long and the first two letters of the word were in capitals, but only when the first letters were typed with my right hand, meaning it was my left on the shift key. THe plot thickens (notice the two capital letters?). When trail running I would find myself tripping often, always started by my left foot.
Then I met up with an old gym member and friend who was in town for work. We met for a coffee for old times sake and to catch up. We spoke on what he was up to and he asked about my recovery from the concussion. A whole world opened up. Kevin had spent the past eight or nine years studying neurology, athletics and how they relate. He agreed to stay in town longer which led to a three hour assessment on me and it was truly fascinating. With simple exercises like eye movements or cross body exercises, I started to gain back what I had lost.
Now I have daily assignments, things like looking at a pen light and moving it from side to side, in a circle or bringing it to my nose until I am cross-eyed, then moving it away. I am exercising my brain and each day I feel myself getting better.
How does this apply to all of you? Walking, running (especially trail running), biking, mountain biking, playing catch, badminton, soccer, hockey, boot camp, and complex movements like burpees stimulate the brain to fire it’s neurons and stay connected. Turns out that I was doing too much. It was overloading my brain and I needed to back off. This can happen post-concussion I learned.
It’s complicated in it’s simplicity. The brain is redundant on many levels and that cross wiring helps us survive horrific injuries. However, surviving is not thriving and as an elite athlete or someone that wants the best life they can have – thriving is the goal.
A normal healthy brain shares the load between both halves, each checking in and ‘riding herd’ with the other. When one side is injured the other half takes over. It suppresses the injured side to prevent interference with the “helping”. This means the injured side can never really recover and you can never truly recover a balance between both sides and hence thrive.
It used to be that a stroke patient had his stroke side arm tied up and he/she was taught how to do everything with the “good side”, however this meant the damaged side never recovered as it wasn’t stimulated. Now they take a different approach, they tie up the good side and force the damaged side to work. A stroke patient relearning to use their arm has been likened to an able bodied person preparing to compete in the Olympics.
Learning to train your brain specifically is comparable to the differences between learning to paint a wall or paint a portrait. Both are painting, but the detail when painting portraits is much more specific.
At work you can also keep your brain engaged by looking away from the screen periodically or through doing eye circles – looking up, down, left, right. Hold a pen close to your line of sight then focus on the pen, the wall in the distance, pen, wall, pen, wall.
It’s truly amazing what can happen when you exercise your brain.
***Scott McDermott is a local business owner, fitness enthusiast and a regular columnist for the Sylvan Lake News.***