Five Brain Healthy Sports
Sports are well known for the physical benefits they hold. But sports help with more than physical development, they also have many benefits for the brain. Here are five sports that are incredibly beneficial for our brains.
Popular all over the world, soccer enhances cognitive functionality and solidifies our gross motor skills while sharpening our fine motor skills. When we play, the cerebellum, the cerebral cortex, and the basal ganglia all work in tandem to keep our body moving and our muscles responding to quick changes as they occur on the field.
As we move our muscles, the hippocampus is working to fine-tune our memory in order to continue learning as we play. Our frontal lobe is activated while we problem-solve on the fly, and the parietal lobe works to increase our attention span and focus.
Tennis involves using our fine-motor skills, hand-eye coordination, agility, calculative foresight, and flexibility. While playing our frontal lobe is honing our focus and attention while our visual cortex works to ensure we don’t miss a single fast-paced detail. Our cerebellum is activated to improve the extreme fine-motor agility tennis requires. Because tennis requires a hyper-alertness to play, studies have shown players develop higher levels of self-esteem and confidence while simultaneously reporting lower levels of stress, anxiety, and aggressive tendencies than other athletes.
Skiing involves body coordination, especially eye-to-leg coordination, body balancing, concentration, and multi-tasking. But more than other sports, skiing activates our amygdala by eliciting a sharp fear response when we stare down an icy mogul. This releases a boost of adrenaline, sharpening our focus, and priming our bodies for athletic performance. And while this fear response can be good, skiers also learn how to overcome their fears by skiing the same slopes repeatedly.
This repeat training activates what’s known as Hebb’s law when repeated neural activity increases synaptic plasticity. This means that the neural pathways associated with skiing grow and multiply, communicating faster and more reliably every time they’re activated. The result is a finely tuned body-brain connection where conscious decision and thought become secondary to movement, allowing an almost instinctual response when performing these practiced activities.
Not all brain healthy sports require a lot of physical training. Fencing is a sport that’s very engaging for the brain, requiring learning proper stance, calculating moves, honing speed and accuracy, maintaining effective eye-hand coordination, and reading an opponent.
While fencing does activate the cerebellum for our gross motor movements, it utilizes them in a slightly different manner than other sports such as gymnastics. It uses what’s known as open motor skills, which means every movement learned is dependent on our opponent. The better we get at fencing, the more fluid these skills become which grows the white matter in our brain.
With every stroke in the water, our entire brain is activated. We use both hemispheres and all four lobes simultaneously while we swim. The consistent cross-body movements strengthen the nerve fibers in the corpus callosum, the thick bundle of nerves that facilitates communication between our left and right hemispheres. This faster communication improves learning, problem-solving, and decision-making.
In addition, the exertion of aerobic activity combined with controlled breathing develops more of the small sacs in our lungs that allow for the movement of oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout our body. This means swimmers have higher levels of oxygen-rich blood than non-swimmers which can help with neurogenesis, particularly in the hippocampus, helping improve our memory and learning capabilities.
Sports in general increase our aerobic activity, improving oxygen levels and pumping nutrient-rich blood to our brain. They lower our stress and anxiety levels by reducing cortisol levels in our brain while pumping mood-elevating endorphins. As we like to say here at Kwik Brain when the body moves the brain grooves, and this is especially true for engaging in these brain-healthy sports.