Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

The Joy of Effort

Being active has many benefits for both body and brain.

I like to use my body. I enjoy the ability to move, to work, to train. I like how it feels. That joy wasn't always there. The seed that grew into the jungle of my own joy of effort was planted when I started martial arts at age 13. I do my own daily martial arts training because it helps me tune my body and feel good. It keeps me fit, but I don't do my own training for fitness. I do it because it keeps me and my body functionally connected and "centered". And to help manage all the injuries I have accumulated (back, neck, elbow, etc). So, for me that joy of effort is also tempered by my own 20 plus year dance with chronic pain. But, more on that in later posts.

The title of this post, "The Joy of Effort", comes from the name of a sculpture by R. Tait McKenzie. He was born in Canada in 1867-the same year Canada was officially established as a country and not just a British Colony-and went on to become an internationally recognized physician, athlete, sculptor, soldier, and physical educator. He was also a major player in the Scouting movement.

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McKenzie seemed to enjoy activities that did not solely require purely physical abilities like strength or endurance. Instead things that included skill, movement coordination, and could be enhanced by practice were his forte. He was also a huge advocate of the idea of physical activity as a preventative measure. That is, to reduce the impact of disease.

While he didn't originally see himself as terribly athletic, McKenzie eventually found his groove in gymnastics, acrobatics, as well as track and field and football. He was one of the leaders. And many of his sculptures depict athletes in action. The one known as "The Joy of Effort" shows a sequence of 3 images of a hurdler in mid-flight and is the icon I used for this post.

"The Joy of Effort" gets directly at the idea of feeling good about using your body to do things. This includes using your brain! The key part is that effort is involved. Wanting things to take effort runs contrary to most of the ethos in modern society. Instead of effort we want easy most of the time. But there is real benefit and value to the effort itself.

This idea of the value of effort shows up sometimes in unexpected places. Like Hollywood movies such as 1992's "A League of Their Own". When Tom Hanks' character Jimmy Dugan is discussing how playing baseball is difficult he says: "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great." This gets at the idea I think R. Tait McKenzie meant by "The Joy of Effort". Using your brain and body to move or try something difficult can be its own reward.

The rewards-or benefits-we normally think of for being active or "doing exercise" are typically things about our muscles, bones, lungs, heart, and so on. (I don't like this term "exercise" but will use it here. A future post will address my issues with "exercise".) Of course, some efforts have more joy in them than others! In any case, I want to bring up the idea of physical activity and your brain. That is, you have to use your body to do physical exercise. Your brain is helping you do the activity-in fact you are doing the activity because your brain is making it so! But what benefits does this have for your brain?

This brings us to a class of proteins you have in your body called "neurotrophins". The "neuro" refers to the cells of your nervous system, your neurons, and "trophos" refers to growth. Neurotrophins are a kind of growth factor that sends signals to help direct, grow, and sustain your neurons. Kind of like a fertilizer and support mix or growth food to maintain connections in your brain. You have a number of these neurotrophins and they do different things. Luckily some are named very literally. So, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was originally found in the brain.

Your brain and spinal cord neurons are a needy bunch. This is not necessarily bad, but it is absolutely true. They need continual support and your neurotrophins help fulfill this role things like regulating neuronal life or death and the maintenance or removal of connections between neurons. A minimum level of neurotrophic factors have to be present to help support your neurons and to help maintain connections with the correct targets. In short, they help with the health and function of your nervous system. They are also fundamental for the way your nervous system adapts and changes--neuroplasticity.

It turns out that levels of BDNF in the brain and body are very much affected by physical activity. Physical training seems to be a key stimulus to make levels of BDNF go up. When those levels are higher, there are effects in things like energy metabolism and neural plasticity. That is, the ability of your body and brain to be active and "in tune". Evidence from rats and mice show that basically all neurotrophins can be affected by activity, but BDNF seems to be the most sensitive of the bunch.

For us humans, there isn't as much direct evidence of the effect of activity on BDNF levels. But the available information suggests something similar goes on in us. The story needs more research but the overall situation seems to be that activity can increase BDNF levels. And this can affect parts of our brains that have to do with mood and memory. The BDNF levels also have widespread effects in our bodies including the spinal cord, muscle, and organs like the kidney. So, the next time you are out there moving your body and working hard, keep in mind that you are also affecting your mind. And your mind is affecting you--it is you.

That "Joy of Effort" related to hard work, to quote from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, is like "...the gift that keeps on giving the whole year 'round". If you can't place that quote from Cousin Eddie, you need to pull out the movie and watch again. Hey, it's just about time anyway with Thanksgiving just around the corner! Then, when you are out for a before or after dinner walk or football game, you can know you are doing good things for your body, your brain, and a bit of BDNF.

© E. Paul Zehr (2011)

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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