Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and change. The model of thinking in which the brain is only plastic (moldable) in the early years of life is outdated. Research demonstrates that the brain continues to change throughout one’s lifespan in “negative or positive directions in response to intrinsic and extrinsic influences” (Schaffer, 2012). Many of these influences, discussed below, are within the scope of the training relationship. Fitness professionals have the opportunity to incorporate practices in client programming and coaching that encourage positive changes in the brain and minimize negative ones. Clients, then, will not only reach their health and fitness goals for their body but can also limit cognitive decline as they age. Cognitive reserve, which is the ability of the brain to be resilient to possible declining function, is also enhanced. Increasing cognitive performance and reserve will help to ensure clients’ ability to learn, remember, and have good mental acuity as they age.
- Define neuroplasticity
- Understand the relevance of neuroplasticity to personal trainers
- Understand the factors that contribute to positive and negative neuroplasticity
- Identify specific changes that a client can adopt with their activity, diet, and lifestyle that will contribute to positive neuroplasticity
Background on Neuroplasticity and its Relevance to Personal Trainers
The field of neuroplasticity began in the 1970s, as scientists tossed out the idea that the brain is an organ that cannot form new cells and simply deteriorates over time. Since then, researchers have studied the ability of the brain to create new neural pathways and synapses. These changes in the brain occur from changes in behavior, the environment, learning, and even from physical injury.
Like all change, it can be for the better or for the worse. Positive neuroplasticity is “the physiological ability of the brain to form and strengthen dendritic connections, produce beneficial morphological changes, and increase cognitive reserve” (Vance, Roberson, McGuinness, & Fazeli, 2010). Physical activity is one of the factors associated with positive neuroplasticity and is the primary focus of the training relationship.
Conversely, negative neuroplasticity is the “ability of the brain to atrophy and weaken dendritic connections, produce detrimental morphological changes, and decrease cognitive reserve” (Vance et al., 2010). Many factors associated with negative neuroplasticity are within the scope of the client-trainer relationship and include: poor sleep hygiene (sleep habits and nutrition and lifestyle habits that interfere with sleep), poor nutrition, and poor health. Substance abuse, depression, and anxiety also negatively affect neuroplasticity. However, these factors are only peripherally addressed in the training relationship. Trainers, specifically those who are well-versed in coaching and behavior modification, can help clients incorporate stress management techniques and other lifestyle changes. Clinical cases of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety, though, should be addressed in conjunction with a therapist or other heath professional.
The Findings on Positive Neuroplasticity
Research on the effects of aerobic exercise and the brain are showing positive results throughout all stages of life (Swain, 2012). Sixth graders who participated in vigorous physical activity (greater than or equal to 6.0 METs) had significantly higher grades than those only participating in moderate physical activity (3.0-5.99 METs) (Coe, Pivarnik, Womack, Reeves, & Malina, 2006). In adolescent girls, physical activity and participation in sports is correlated with high self-esteem and less depressive symptoms (Dishman et al, 2006). In older adults, aerobic activity not only decreased the loss of brain tissue (Colcombe, 2003) but can help increase both the volume of the gray and white matter areas (Colcombe, 2006). Regardless of the age of the clientele, trainers can rest assured that having clients perform aerobic activity will benefit both the body and the brain.
The Findings on Negative Neuroplasticity
Poor Sleep Hygiene
Brain functioning and memory, in particular, are dependent on getting adequate sleep. Much of the current research in sleep supports the two-stage memory model. This model assumes that new memories are temporarily stored in the hippocampus. Gradually, these memories are moved to long-term storage in the neocortex or are forgotten. The transference of memories from short- to long-term memory requires sleep, especially slow-wave sleep (SWS) (Born & Wilhelm, 2012).
Sleep research has demonstrated that participants who slept after memorizing a list of items had greater recall and forgot fewer items than participants who were tested before going to sleep. (Fenn & Hambrick, 2013). Sleep helps with storage and recall of new information. Adequate sleep is also associated with both short-term (Ratcliff & Dongen, 2009) and long-term (Tworoger, Lee, Schernhammer, & Grodstein, 2006) cognitive functioning.
Adequate sleep is dependent on many nutrition and lifestyle factors. Consuming too much caffeine or consuming it later in the day may make falling asleep more difficult. Other factors that disrupt sleep include:
- A noisy environment
- Being stimulated by blue light from electronic devices (including TVs, computers and phones) in the hours preceding bed time
- Too much food or liquid before bed
Improving sleep hygiene requires that enough time be set aside for sleeping in addition to ensuring that nutrition and lifestyle choices are not precluding the ability to fall or stay asleep.
It may be obvious that a lack of nutrients in the diet will affect the brain, as well as the rest of the body, whose cells rely upon essential nutrients from the diet. However, the impact of nutrition on the brain extends far beyond the nutrients in foods. Gut health affects the health of the brain.
The gut is often called the “second brain” (Carpenter, 2012). The lining of the gut contains approximately 100 million nerve cells which are connected through the vagas nerve to the brain. It is not surprising, then, that poor nutrition impacts gut health and functioning which then affects brain functioning.
The gut is teeming with bacteria and other single-cell organisms that far outnumber the cells in the human body. These bacteria produce various chemicals and neurotransmitters that affect the brain. One of these neurotransmitters is serotonin. In fact, the gut is where about 95% of the serotonin in the body is found (Kim & Camilleri, 2000). When the gut is filled with bad bacteria, mold, yeast, and parasites, known as dysbiosis, higher levels of depression and anxiety (Carpenter, 2012), and therefore negative neuroplasticity, are seen.
A number of nutritional, environmental, and lifestyle factors are associated with dysbiosis.
Foods associated with dysbiosis include:
- Common allergens, such as dairy, eggs, and nuts (Brown, DeCoffe, Molcan, & Gibson, 2012)
- Gluten, especially in those with gluten intolerance and celiac disease (Brown et al., 2012)
- Refined sugars (Brown et al., 2012)
- Alcohol (Yan et al., 2011)
Environmental and lifestyle factors that influence the health of the gut and contribute to dysbiosis include:
- The use of antibiotics (Sekirov, Russell, Caetano, Antunes, & Finlay, 2010 and Hawrelak & Myers, 2004)
- Physiological stress (Hawrelak & Myers, 2004)
- Psychological stress (Hawrelak & Myers, 2004)
In addition to dysbiosis contributing to disease of the intestinal tract, it also affects the functioning of the immune system and susceptibility of developing diabetes or becoming obese (Brown et al. 2012). As is discussed in the next section, poor health contributes to negative neuroplasticity. Good nutrition and lifestyle habits help strengthen overall health and well-being of the mind and body. This equates to helping clients reach their goals while strengthening positive neuroplasticity.
Poor health caused by disease is linked to a decline in cognitive functioning. Both the disease itself and some of the medications used to treat the disease contribute to the cognitive decline. These physical diseases include:
- Pulmonary disease (Vance et al., 2010)
- Hypertension (Vance et al., 2010)
- Diabetes (Stranahan et al., 2008)
It’s not just chronic disease that affects the brain and memory. When you are sick with the flu or other acute illness, the functioning of the hippocampus, which helps encode memories temporarily, is disrupted (Maier & Watkins, 2012). Additionally, poor health choices like smoking (Bruijnzeel et al., 2011) and consuming alcohol negatively affect cognitive performance.
Putting Research into Practice
Client workout, nutrition, and lifestyle protocols ideally should incorporate behaviors that help improve cognitive performance and reserve.
Help clients reduce factors associated with negative neuroplasticity:
- Excessive consumption of alcohol
- Consuming foods associated with dysbiosis
- Contact with all toxins
- Unnecessary use of antibiotics and other drugs
- Excessive physical or emotional stress
Help clients practice behaviors associated with positive neuroplasticity:
- Regular physical activity
- Consuming a variety of nutritionally dense foods
- Taking a probiotic supplement to help restore gut health
- Getting an adequate amount of sleep, which will vary from person to person
- Practicing stress management techniques, such as journaling, meditation, tai chi, and yoga
To get started, first determine which of the recommendations will be most beneficial to improving brain health based on the client’s current lifestyle, goals, and health challenges. Then, dialogue with the client to narrow down the one or two changes he/she is willing and most excited about making. Client buy-in is important. It can increase compliance and long-term adherence. Finally, some recommendations may be outside the scope of the training relationship (i.e. minimizing the use of antibiotics). In these instances, refer the client to the appropriate health professional who can help determine a suitable course of action.
Working with clients on their nutrition and lifestyle choices is invaluable. The findings in neuroplasticity research are exciting in that they confirm that the benefits of the client-trainer relationship extend far beyond just looking better or improving fitness levels. Not only will it help them reach the goals that brought them to training in the first place but will also promote neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve. Ultimately, this lends itself to clients experiencing a higher quality of life.
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