Turns Out Learning A New Sport Could Be Very, Very Good For Your 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.

The New York Times published a really neat piece about the new wave of academic studies showing the sports are potentially a great catalyst for positive physical changes in the brain. Especially when you go out of your way to learn a new one.

“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.

Even more compelling, 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.

Originally, researchers posited that the process of myelination was something exclusive to childhood and early adolescence. However, as more studies are being conducted, like the one with the mice above, it’s being discovered that myelination in the motor cortex can occur in adults, too. Even wilder is that the animals who only ran on normal wheels for the same period of time showed no increase in myelination afterward. In other words, athletic activity out of your comfort zone can potentially promote positive brain growth that activities you’re accustomed to won’t.

“We don’t know” whether comparable changes occur within the brains of grown people who take up a new sport or physical skill, Dr. Krakauer said. But it seems likely, he said. “Motor skills are as cognitively challenging” in their way as traditional brainteasers such as crossword puzzles or brain-training games, he said. So adding a new sport to your repertory should have salutary effects on your brain, and also, unlike computer-based games, provide all the physical benefits of exercise.

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.

Now get out there and do it!

[via The New York Times]