Updated 10 months, 3 weeks ago

Learning a new sport may be good for the brain

According to emerging research, learning a new sport or kinetically-centered hobby may help strengthen your brain in the same way as cognitive tasks such as mind games and arithmetic, or learning a new language.

While “intelligence” is usually regarded in the scope of critical thinking and problem solving, scientists and researchers are now learning that motor activity skills also foster reactions in the brain leading to increased levels of gray matter. Specifically, as gray matter develops it promotes plasticity in the brain – the creation of more brain cells in the areas responsible for controlling the activity in question. The motor cortex, which constitutes your ability to do everything from the most basic task of blinking to walking, running, and of course, playing sports, has become a focus of a lot of scholarly research of late.

A 2014 study with mice found that when the mice were introduced to a complicated type of running wheel, in which the rungs were irregularly spaced so that the animals 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.

“We have a tendency to admire motor skills,” said Dr. John Krakauer, a professor of neurology and director of the Center for the Study of Motor Learning and Brain Repair at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. We like watching athletes in action, he said. But most of us make little effort to hone our motor skills in adulthood, and very few of us try to expand them by, for instance, learning a new sport.

We could be short-changing our brains. Past neurological studies in people have shown that learning a new physical skill in adulthood, such as juggling, leads to increases in the volume of gray matter in parts of the brain related to movement control.

So you want to promote having a healthy brain and feel better about yourself afterwards? Get out there and try something new. It’s virtually guaranteed to make you feel good because of the plasticity responses in your brain.

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