Monday, August 29, 2016

Different Types of Exercises Affect Different Parts of Your Brain

Article c/o Teal Burrell | Prevent Disease

Different Types of Exercises Affect Different Parts of Your Brain

Pumping iron to sculpt your biceps. Yoga poses to stretch and relax. Running to whittle your waistline and get fit fast. There are loads of reasons why it’s smart to exercise, and most of us are familiar with the menu of options and how each can shape and benefit your body. But we are discovering that there are numerous ways in which exercise makes you smart too. Many of its effects have been going unnoticed, but if you were to peer inside the heads of people who like to keep active, you’d see that different exercises strengthen, sculpt and shape the brain in myriad ways.

That the brains of exercisers look different to those of their more sedentary counterparts is, in itself, not new. We have been hearing for years that exercise is medicine for the mind, especially aerobic exercise. Physical fitness has been shown to help with the cognitive decline associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and depression, and we know this is at least in part because getting your blood pumping brings more oxygen, growth factors, hormones and nutrients to your brain, leading it — like your muscles, lungs and heart — to grow stronger and more efficient.

But a new chapter is beginning in our understanding of the influence of physical exercise on cognition. Researchers are starting to find more specific effects related to different kinds of exercise.
Specifically, high-intensity intervals, aerobic exercise, weight training, yoga and sports drills are affect different areas of the brain.

They are looking beyond the standard recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate, aerobic exercise a day, for the sake of your brain. Are there benefits to going slower or faster? To lifting weights, or performing sun salutations? Whether you want a boost in focus for an exam, find it hard to relax or are keen to quit smoking, there’s a prescription for you.

“Lifting weights helps improve complex thoughts, problem-solving and multitasking”
The first clue that exercise affects the brain came from rodent studies 15 years ago, which showed that allowing mice access to a running wheel led to a boost in neuron formation in their hippocampi, areas of the brain essential for memory. That’s because exercise causes hippocampal neurons to pump out a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new neurons. The mice showed improvements in memory that allowed them to navigate mazes better.

The findings were soon translated to humans. Older adults who did aerobic exercise three times a week for a year also grew larger hippocampi and performed better in memory tests. Those with the highest levels of BDNF in their blood had the biggest increases in this brain region.

The idea that exercise helps to improve memory has been especially welcome given that the search for effective treatments for cognitive decline has been slow in progress. And it now seems that aerobic exercise such as running and cycling may help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

As the evidence for aerobic exercise accumulated, Teresa Liu-Ambrose at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, began to wonder about other types of exercise. She has been looking for ways to halt dementia in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a population of adults known to be at increased risk of developing dementia, and was especially interested in strength training, which has in recent years been added to US and UK government recommendations for physical activity.

To test the idea, Liu-Ambrose compared the effects of aerobic exercise and strength training in 86 women with MCI. She measured their impact on two abilities known to decline as the condition progresses: memory and executive function — which encompasses complex thought processes, including reasoning, planning, problem-solving and multitasking.

Twice a week for an hour, one group lifted weights, while the other went for brisk walks quick enough that talking required effort. A control group just stretched for an hour instead. After six months of this, both walking and lifting weights had a positive effect on spatial memory — the ability to remember one’s surroundings and sense of place.

On top of that, each exercise had unique benefits. The group that lifted weights saw significant improvements to executive function. They also performed better in tests of associative memory, which is used for things like linking someone’s name to their face. The aerobic-exercise group saw improvements to verbal memory — the ability to remember that word you had on the tip of your tongue. Simply stretching had no effect on either memory or executive function.

If aerobic exercise and strength training have distinct benefits, is combining them the way to go? To address this, Willem Bossers of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands split 109 people with dementia into three groups. One group walked briskly four times a week for 30 minutes; a combination group walked twice a week and strength-trained twice a week for 30 minutes each; and a control group did no exercise. After nine weeks, Bossers put the participants through a battery of executive-function tests that measured problem-solving, inhibition and processing speed. He found that the combination group showed moreimprovement in executive function than the aerobic-only or control groups. “It seems that, for older adults, walking only is not enough. They need to do some strength training,” he says.

Immediate Attention Boost
And these benefits extend to healthy adults too. In a year-long trial of healthy older women, Liu-Ambrose found that lifting weights, even just once a week, resulted in significant improvements in tests of executive function. Balancing and toning exercises, on the other hand, did not.
The combination of lifting weights and aerobic exercise might be particularly powerful because strength training triggers the release of a molecule called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a growth hormone produced in the liver that is known to affect communication between brain cells, and to promote the growth of new neurons and blood vessels. On the other hand, aerobic exercise mainly boosts BDNF, says Liu-Ambrose. In addition, Bossers says strength training also decreases levels of homocysteine, an inflammatory molecule that is increased in the brains of older adults with dementia. By combining aerobic exercise with strength training, you’re getting a more potent neurobiological cocktail. “You’re attacking the system in two ways,” he says.

The studies so far haven’t addressed how long the effects last, but preliminary findings suggest adults will have to keep exercising to maintain the benefits.

Another approach is to start young, with findings that different types of exercise affect a child’s mental capacity in a number of ways. For example, if you want kids to focus for an hour — on a maths test, say — the best bet is to let them have a quick run around first. That’s according to studies that show a simple 20-minute walk has immediate effects on children’s attention, executive function and achievement in mathematics and reading tests. Letting kids sprint or skip about has the same effect. A brisk walk can also help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to focus, although again it’s not yet clear how long the effects last.

These findings should be used to make decisions about the daily school routine, says Charles Hillman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who carried out some of the research. He agrees with current recommendations that children get at least an hour of exercise daily, but notes that it might be best spread over the course of the day. Because purely aerobic exercise keeps kids focused in the near term, giving them breaks to walk or move around every 2 hours might be the best way to promote learning.

In contrast, exercise that is highly structured and focused on specific skills, such as for a sport or to improve coordination, hampers attention. A bunch of drills and rules may be too taxing for children right before a test or a situation that requires sustained focus.

Instead, these kinds of specific exercises seem to build up attention span gradually over the long-term. In research yet to be published, Maria Chiara Gallotta at the University of Rome in Italy found that twice-weekly sessions of coordinative exercises, such as basketball, volleyball or gymnastics practice, over the course of five months helped children do better on tests that required concentration and ignoring distractions.

The cerebellum — the finely wrinkled structure at the base of the brain — has been long known to be involved in coordinating movement, but is now recognised as having a role in attention as well. Practising complicated movements activates the cerebellum and, by working together with the frontal lobe, might improve attention in the process.

Making sure children are physically fit can have lasting cognitive benefits too, says Hillman. He has shown that children who are fit have larger hippocampi and basal ganglia, and that they perform better in attention tests. The basal ganglia are a group of structures important for movement and goal-directed behaviour — turning thoughts into actions. They interact with the prefrontal cortex to influence attention, inhibition and executive control, helping people to switch between two tasks, such as going from sorting cards by colour to sorting cards by suit.

Hillman focuses on children aged 8 to 11 because areas like the hippocampi and basal ganglia are still maturing, so intervening at a young age can make a big difference. And even small gains in fitness lead to measurable changes in the brain. In some of his studies, Hillman has put kids on year-long after-school fitness programmes. Many are overweight, and while they don’t lose much weight, their brains do change. They’re going from being unfit to slightly less unfit, says Hillman. “But we’re still finding benefits to brain function and cognition.”

Adults too can reap brain gains from sporty challenges, says Claudia Voelcker-Rehage at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany. Her research on older adults showed an increase in basal ganglia volume following coordination exercises that included balancing, synchronising arm and leg movements, and manipulating props like ropes and balls, but not from aerobic exercise.

Voelcker-Rehage found that these types of exercise improved visual-spatial processing, required for mentally approximating distances — for instance, being able to assess whether you have time to cross the street before an oncoming car reaches you — more than aerobic exercise.

Another explanation comes from recent research by Tracy and Ross Alloway, both at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. They found that just a couple of hours of activity of the type we often enjoy during childhood, such as climbing trees, crawling along a beam, or running barefoot, had a dramatic effect on working memory.

This is the ability to hold on to information and manipulate it in our minds at the same time. “It prioritises and processes information, allowing us to ignore what is irrelevant and work with what is important,” says Tracy Alloway. “Working memory influences nearly everything that you do, from the classroom to the boardroom.”

So what is it about climbing trees or beam balancing that is so beneficial? The researchers only found positive results when the activities were a combination of two things. They needed to challenge the sense of proprioception — the position and orientation of the body — and also needed at least one other element, such as navigation, calculation or locomotion. Basically, the advantages came from exercises in which we need to balance and think at the same time.

The more we learn about the effects of exercise on the brain, the more different types of benefits are emerging, extending beyond cognition to changes in behaviour.

One of the most popular fitness trends of the last few years is high-intensity interval training, which involves quick spurts of all-out exercise. Its sheer toughness is claimed to provide the same benefits as longer efforts in a fraction of the time.

These workouts might have an extra advantage: short bursts of activity can help curb cravings. And although the tougher the better, they don’t necessarily have to be gut-bustingly hard.

To test the effects of intensity training on appetites, Kym Guelfi at the University of Western Australia in Perth invited overweight men to come into the lab on four separate occasions. On three of the visits, they spent 30 minutes on an exercise bike, but at different intensities — a moderate, continuous pace; alternating between intervals of high-intensity cycling for 1 minute followed by 4 minutes of moderate cycling; or alternating between very high intensity, 15-second sprints followed by one really easy minute. The fourth visit consisted of resting for the full 30 minutes.

Craving control
After the most intense intervals, the men ate less of the provided, post-workout porridge and less food overall for the next day and a half compared with days they cycled moderately or simply rested.
One explanation could be that the exercise reduced levels of the “hunger hormone”, ghrelin. This is responsible for telling the part of the brain that controls eating — the hypothalamus — when the stomach is empty. When full, ghrelin production shuts off and hunger wanes. Following the most intense intervals of exercise, ghrelin levels were lowest.

What is clear is that these effects can endure well into old age, and it’s never too late to start. The hippocampus shrinks as we get older, leading to the typical struggles with memory. But aerobic exercise not only prevents this loss — it reverses it, slowing the effects of getting older. Voelcker-Rehage has found that the brain requires less energy to complete certain tasks after exercise. “We would say that points to the fact that the brain is more efficient,” she says. “It works more like a young brain.”

And in a study looking at yogis that had been practising for many years, Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital found that some brain regions were remarkably well preserved compared with those of healthy controls that were matched for age, gender, education and race. “The 50-year-old’s brain looked like a 25-year-old’s,” notes Lazar.

If you’re still unsure which type of exercise to pick, there’s some overlap between the different exercises and benefits, so Liu-Ambrose’s suggestion is simple: “If you’re not active, do something that you enjoy.” The best exercise is the kind that you’ll actually do.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Genius Way to Overcome Fear

Article c/o Tammy T. Stone
Elephant Journal

A Genius Way to Overcome Fear:
Pema Chodron's Wisdom.

"If you don't do what I tell you, I have no power.: ~ Pema Chodron

I'm a question-asker, without a doubt.  The trickier, the more seemingly unanswerable the question, the more I like digging into it.

Some questions are great riddles to be solved, and some are just huge fans of trapping you in a cycle of re-questioning that can drive you mad.

I've tried doodling a visualization of this: I drew two concentric circles, side by side.  I was in one of them with my various layers of thought processes, and my questions, with their myriad layers, were in the other.

I was trying to get to the "essence" of me and of my questions, and failed.  There also appeared to be no way to get these two circles to overlap.

How could I possibly answer the questions from within my own little cage-circle, when the objects of my questions existed in another?  I could not for the life of me find a way to build a bridge from one to the other.  Yet they were both coming from "me!" Oh the riddle.

It took me a long time to begin realizing that some questions aren't meant to be answered, at least in the ways we are accustomed to, that you can't get at the meaning of life the way you an add two and two and that our minds (and egos) specialize in the art of confusing us.  Thus began a long journey to climb out of this system of closed circles, and into a practice that helps you shift focus.  (Hint: get out of your head! Find you way through the heart!)

Still, the questions come back, so recently, I sat down to engage with them more closely for the first time in awhile.  I wrote down the ones that plague me the most or the most often, because I can't seem to shake them, or find answers to them, or know how to stop thinking about them.

Sometimes I don't have these questions, and these are great, if transient moments of peace and contentment.

Then the questions come back:

1. Why am I always seeking - why are we driven to seek rather than just be content with what we have?

2. Why do I often feel I am falling?

3. Why am I afraid of falling (what's the worst that can happen)?

4. Why do I always feel there must be something more to all of this?

5. Why do I feel that happiness can only be found elsewhere?

6. Why do I have so many questions that seem to have no answers, and where do they come from?

7. What is the nature of nostalgia, that floods me with feelings that have no object?

8. Why do things feel more broken than whole?

9. Why do I feel lonely?

10. Why do familiar things feel strange after some time?

Pema Chodron reminds us that so many of our questions can be traced to fear.  Fears can be intentional (they can be of or about something), of course, but fear can also be nebulous, formless and all-pervasive.

I love the idea that she alludes to so brilliantly here, that we can't and shouldn't stop ourselves from having questions (can we stop being human?), but that we can make decisions not to engage with what lies behind them.

Fear keeps us from connecting with others, and keeps us from our own happiness.

When I feel fear creeping in, and dragging my questions along with it, I found these words of Pema Chodron's so inspiring, and would like to share them in the hope that they can be of benefit:

"Once there was a young warrior.  Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear.  She didn't want to do that.  It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly.  But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle.  The day arrived.  The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other.  the warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful.  They both had their weapons.  The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, "May I have permission to go into battle with you? Fear said, "Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission."  Then the young warrior said, "How an I defeat you?" Fear replied, "My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face.  Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say.  If you don't do what I tell you, I have no power.  You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me.  You can even be convinced by me.  But if you don't do what I say, I have no power." In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear."

~ When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Monday, August 15, 2016

3 Ways to Heal Your Inner Child

Article c/o

3 Simple and Effective Ways to Heal Your Inner Child

During the first 6 years of our lives our programming is being set. Psychologically, this programming will determine how each of us deals with life, our level of confidence and how we define what love looks and feels like.

The relationship with our parents and caretakers is the single most important connection we establish, as this first understanding becomes the definition of love.

Whether the home is filled with tremendous love or lack there of, even the happiest households still birth children who harbour feelings of pain and rejection.

As you become the adult you, the inner child stays with you compartmentalized into your psyche holding the pain, rejection and programming you were born into.

Until these emotional wounds are healed, they will continue to manifest outwardly and can create all sorts of problems. You may find that you continually live the same scenarios in life, such as finding partners who mirror your original household upbringing, yet are not healthy for you.

Until we can bring these wounds front and center and incorporate them into our conscious awareness, they will continue to live in a “box in our mind”, the inner child psyche, that is still looking to be heard and healed.

1. Accept the Past
It is common in hurtful situations to try to avoid the pain and stifle the memories. But by stifling the memories they will manifest negatively in other aspects of our lives. By accepting our
pain and bringing our memories forward into conscious awareness they can be healed.

We may not remember the events that took place in our earliest years, but we never forget the feelings. Acceptance of the past is the first step to healing.

“the past cannot be changed, edited or erased it can only be accepted” unknown

2. Dissect the Parental Relationship
This doesn’t mean pointing fingers or assessing blame to your parents. It means empathizing and practice forgiveness. Know that your parents are also broken children who did not heal properly. Your childhood could be a reflection of their own childhood. They may have vowed to do better than their parents did but unless they were able to heal themselves, the cycle from generation to generation continues on.

We may not be able to change the past, but we can change our perception of it.

3. Bridge the Connection
Meditation is one of the most effective ways to connect with your inner child and hear what needs to be healed specifically. By creating a safe place in your mind for your inner child you are building a bridge to connect the adult you and the child in you.

Once this connection has been made, you may be very surprised in what your mind was hiding from you in order to protect you. Memories can surface that you may not even believe were yours. Speak to your inner child and let him know that the adult you will take care of the child now.

Let the child know it is time to let go of the past, and everything will be ok.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Using MEDITATION to Overcome Addiction

Article c/o

How to Overcome Addiction Through Meditation

The design of modern society really shifts the fundamental idea of what addiction actually is. The official definition of addiction is a strong or harmful need to do something. 

For many people, this need is something instantly rewarding like drugs, alcohol or gambling. The idea of addiction goes much deeper than this, and many people are looking at it from a skewed perspective. Addiction is seen as something criminals or “bad” people do because something is wrong with their brain.

There was a very interesting study done that shifted many researchers understanding of addiction. The previous experiments had a single rat in a cage 1 water bottle laced with heroine or cocaine, and 1 with just normal water. Because there was nothing to do, the rat drank the drugged water and eventually died.  So, a new experiment was conducted that had many rats in a supportive “rat park” where they were free to do whatever they liked. There was 1 laced bottle of water, and 1 normal bottle of water. In this environment, the rats barely touched the laced water, because there was essentially no need to.

Addiction is a result of the environment directly around us. Many people are born into chaotic environments that they cannot control, and as a way to escape, numb pain and cope with life, they create dependencies on external things. Without the right kind of support, people can lose themselves in their pain. 

In this modern world, the idea of addiction is a lot more common place than we think. So many of us are addicted to the internet, Facebook, media and different forms of distraction. When this can be used productively and positively, then it doesn’t become a dependency or an escape. That is the balance we are trying to achieve.

Humans are meant to live naturally in interconnect and supportive communities around the world. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that our world is greatly unbalanced, chaotic and demanding. Addiction is a result of our society, and how we collectively understand human consciousness. With the right kind of environment and support, addiction can be easily overcome. 

This is the first step.

Your Environment

If there’s something you want to quit, anything from smoking to biting your nails – your immediate surroundings need to be in support of you.
This is how this societal system traps us – it is almost impossible to escape the busy-ness of life. It is crucial to have your home or a special space for you to be exactly how you need it to be.
It can be a room in your house, a park, or anywhere that takes stress off you, not add to it.

A messy house, demanding job and stresses of every day life make, say, quitting smoking extremely hard. You want relief after paying a bunch of bills – it fundamentally isn’t your fault.

Believe It’s Possible

Our belief that we are solely physical beings is the very thing stopping us from being able to fly around and bend the elements. Same goes for anything, including quitting an addiction. If you do not believe it is possible or it’s just too hard right now, then you limit yourself from actually being able to do it.

This relates directly to your environment, if you know you are going to be stressed and need that release eventually, you have to take the steps to ensure you can be stress free. This could look like taking a small vacation, going camping or something simple that relieves stress from you.

The Support Around You

Who is immediately around you determines your stress level.

If you live in an abusive, chaotic environment, that is a whole other ball park. That takes a great deal of strength to put together a plan to help yourself. That might mean leaving the environment completely. If you have children or something always demanding your attention, using the support around you is vital to being able to overcome addiction.

If you have parents, friends and family that can come help you through this transition, that is very much needed. You need understanding, trusting people around you who are willing to put in the work to help see you transition. If it is something like smoking, they need to be sensitive and aware that you can become extremely moody while quitting.

Your support needs to be there no matter what – and this is a way to see who is truly there for you.


Now, you don’t need to be an expert in meditation to be able to do this. The point is to get yourself into a peaceful enough state, with no external stresses and influences. If you are able have a support environment around you and enough time, you can achieve this simply. Sit or lay down in whatever position is comfortable for you.

Focus on your breathing as you start to clear your mind. Let your thoughts run and let your cravings creep up. Don’t resist any of the feelings, that is key.

When you can focus your breathing enough to slow everything down, you can start to separate your consciousness from your body. This can be as simple as being on the edge of falling asleep but still completely conscious. It takes practice to get this relaxed without dozing off.

Once you can get to that slow, peaceful space – then you can start focusing on the feeling of being addicted. You can feel that craving objectively if you are in that higher state. You can feel what it feels like to not be addicted to your cravings anymore. Almost like a lucid dream, you can explore depths of yourself you never knew was possible. This doesn’t immediately happen, that is why a consistent support is needed.

With the combination of a supportive environment, you can start to ease off the substance right away. If your addiction is something non physical like the internet, porn or an idea, the process is the same. It takes determination and will to consciously stop the feeling of needing something.

There is no shame in both wanting and needing something, when it becomes a dependency, you know something needs to shift. Be persistent in the wanting to be free from a physical addiction – for you are infinitely more than you might believe.

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