Are Athletes Smarter Than the Rest of Us?

In my Somatic Education training we had to write a paper on why the study of neurophysiology was important to the practice of Hanna Somatic (Clinical Somatic) Education.The unique methods used in private clinical sessions of Somatics are based in neurophysiology: the brain controls the  muscles, and movement gives feedback to the brain, making the brain more efficient at coordinating muscles and movement and improving posture. Muscle dysfunction can only be changed through movement.

In an Exuberant Animal workshop I took a while ago, Frank Forencich gave a talk about the positive brain changes that occur through daily vigorous movement. He brought up the stereotype of the "dumb jock," and how false that stereotype is. Studies are showing that they just might have smarter brains than most of us!

Practice is the main reason that athletes' brains - and by extension their movement - function better. Athletes are constantly predicting the next move and honing their brain's ability to respond to whatever is happening.  In the article linked above, they cite a brain study of people learning to juggle. After a week of practice, the jugglers were already developing extra gray matter in some brain areas. These brain changes continued for months, the scientists found. As soon as someone starts to practice a new sport - and I would add a new movement, in general -  the brain begins to change, and the changes continue for years.

Not everyone has the time, nor the desire to become an athlete. However, the brain benefits of adding new and challenging new ways of moving are available to all, athlete, scientist, carpenter or web designer. Somatic Movement is an excellent way to challenge our brains, change our bodies, reduce our pain and keep ourselves smarter as we age.

The first step is awareness. Somatic Movement is meant to increase the brain's awareness of how it feels to be in your own body in space. The word for that is proprioception. Needing heightened and honed proprioceptive skills isn't just the domain of an elite athlete. Proprioceptive skills, sorely lacking today in many sedentary young people, is crucial to one's survival.  A lack of proprioception can cause chronic back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee and foot pain. It can cause people to lose their balance and limit their movement, causing accidents.

In young people a lack of proprioception, I dare say, can lead to decreased self-esteem, more attention deficit, and a lack of problem solving skills. If learning a new skill increases brain matter, does this have anything to do with the learning issues of today's children? This is why vigorous movement (no matter what it is) is so important for young people.

Proprioception can be improved through Somatic Movement - so you can use your brain to become better at whatever it is you love to do. I'm convinced that you can become as smart as an athlete, as long as you challenge yourself with movement.

Chronic pain and injuries can get in the way of a movement filled life. Diligent, patience and persistent practice of basic movement patterns that flex, extend, side bend, twist and rotate your body as a whole will engage your brain to stay in control of your movement, ready for whatever comes your way. Somatic Movement can be done while lying down or while seated. Once you feel you've released your tight muscles, and regained aware and control of your movement, move on to an activity that is challenging for your brain and body.

It doesn't need to be a triathalon, gymnastics, or a spinning class. Ballroom dancing, yoga, hiking, swimming and exuberant play-based fitness will challenge your brain to change your body and movement, and keep you healthy for longer than you thought possible.