Kung Fu and Your Brain
I have good news and bad news for you in regard to your brain.
First, the bad news. After age 20 we all lose thousands of brain cells every day. The good news? Well, there wasn’t much of that until Elizabeth Gould at Rockefeller University who led the charge to discover in the late 1990’s that 5,000 to 10,000 cells are also born in the adult brain every single day. These new cells crop up in an area well known to be involved with learning, memory and mood, the hippocampus. Before that, scientists assumed there was very little ability for the brain to renew itself.
But there’s a catch. Within a couple of weeks the great majority of these new cells will dry up like tumble weeds in the desert if conditions aren’t right for them to take root and grow. What makes them take root and grow? Learning does. Not just any old kind of learning, however, but challenging learning that pushes us out of our “comfort zone.” The need for challenging learning to save new neurons has been well demonstrated in animal studies and evidence points to this being the case in humans as well.
There’s an additional factor to consider in the generation and maturation of new neurons, however; and, that factor is exercise. Exercise causes the release of “brain derived neurotropic factor” (BDNF) in the brain. BDNF is to neurons what “Miracle Grow” is to plants. It nourishes brain cells and helps them grow and develop optimally. When you combine exercise with challenging learning material, the beneficial effects on new neurons is maximized and you have the ideal recipe for mental growth and sharpness.
This brings us to training such as we encounter in a well run Kung Fu school. Due to the great depth of beautiful material available for learning in Kung Fu, the student is always challenged to learn more and more complex routines as he or she advances through the ranks. The result is a learning environment that is both highly challenging and, as anyone knows who’s tried it, accompanied by plenty of vigorous exercise. This makes Kung Fu a perfect activity for brain health, as well as general health.
The benefits to brain health go further than mental function and extend into the area of emotions. It so happens that healthy neurons in the hippocampus are also associated with a stable mood and less depression and negative feelings. Thus, the total contribution to brain health from regular Kung Fu training gives us the perfect package of physical and psychological well-being. What more could anyone ask for from something that is also so much fun?
David Anzaldua, M.D. is board certified in family medicine and also in the newest medical specialty, Anti-Aging/Regenerative Medicine. He is a lecturer at Stanford and former Senior Professor and Dean of Integrative Medicine at AIMC, Berkeley. He has lectured nationally and internationally. He is a Black Belt at Chuan Wu Kung Fu Institute.
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