This is a fascinating book and here is my summary with some take-home tips. It explores the science behind how our body affects our mind. Human beings it seems, are meant to move. Bursts of activity throughout the day equate to better health outcomes and different kinds of movement affect the mind in different ways. Our brain is like a muscle and stimulating it causes expansion. Our body can stimulate our brain with movement. In many cases, science is now figuring out what traditional wisdom knew all along it seems.
We are now more inactive than ever before with adult inactivity increasing from 30%/day to 70% /day currently and 80% if you are elderly. Worryingly children spend 50% of their out of school time inactive and our IQs are now falling globally for the first time in history-could these two things be linked? The science presented in this book suggests they are.
Modern hunter-gatherer tribes living traditional lifestyles and studied today demonstrate walking 6-15,000 steps/day which is not hugely above what some modern day humans may be achieving, however when they are inactive they squat or sit on the ground and this recruits muscles which in turn stimulates blood flow to our brains. Sitting it seems, does not do this.
TIP#1 break up periods of sitting with movement every 30-60 mins, squat, stand or sit on the ground when you can instead of using the chair, your brain will function better as a result and your risk of modern day chronic disease will go down too.
We evolved from tree dwelling to hunter gathering on the savannas and grasslands as climate changed in the past and it seems this came with the ability to walk a lot and run a little. If we are not on our feet moving enough our brains save energy by reducing capacity and that may be why we are seeing cognitive decline nowadays. There are pressure sensors in our feet which when squashed send a small but significant boost of blood supply to the brain, a 20mins brisk walking (2 steps/sec) is enough to improve brain functioning and the frontal lobe gets a small but significant boost of blood, interestingly walking at a gentle pace switching of the frontal cortex and stimulates the creative centres of the brain instead.
TIP#2 walking executive meetings are great for planning and take your team for a wander in nature to crack those complex problems by letting new perspectives and ideas arise in the creative parts of their brains to generate those ‘Aha!’ moments.
It appears we maximise the blood flow to the brain when we our heart rates and step rates are synchronised at 120bpm. This makes us feel good too -think Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” song. We are hard put not to move to the rhythm, stomping our feet, punching the air and nodding our heads in time. Even babies show signs of moving to music and those who do actually smile more and are more helpful in their responses! Rhythmic movements help us connect with ourselves and others and has been shown to improve mental health and reduce loneliness. It tests our balance in a functional way which also makes us feel good. Despite all this, dancing in public is still banned in some modern day countries today.
TIP#3 dance like you just don’t care to a song at 120bpm, whether you are alone or with others you will feel good afterwards. Encourage your teenagers to join in, invite your elderly mum to join a line dancing class and take your baby or toddler along to movement and music classes!
Loading our bones stimulates the release of the hormone Osteocalcin which acts on the brain to improve cognition and memory function. Interestingly the direction of movement has an influence too, moving forwards helps us focus our thoughts on the future and leave past experiences behind and if we look up those thoughts will be more positive than if we look down at our feet. Our posture influences our thoughts. An upright posture engages our core muscle and evokes more positive thoughts, as well as the added benefit of the increased blood flow to our brain that this gives too.
TIP #4 Take a brisk walk with your shoulders back, chest out and head held high gazing above the horizon to get over a bad day or unpleasant experience.
Strength and resistance training has conclusively shown to improve peoples’ confidence in their ability to overcome life’s challenges by increasing their resilience and self esteem. Weight training has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression and improve sleep irrespective of change in muscle size. Unconscious messaging between the mind and body provide the basis for self and an undercurrent of mood for everything else that happens to us. This can impact whether we feel happy, sad, hopeful or on edge for reasons hard to pinpoint. Natural exercise has been shown to be as effective for this, if not better, than going to the gym.
TIP#5 Include a few pushups and sit ups each day to improve your mood and self confidence.
Explosive power is a function of our connective tissue. This is innately elastic but stiffens with age. Children trained to exploit this ability as youngsters demonstrate better mental and emotional reserves over a lifetime. If we move like human beings were designed to in nature we gain an overall sense of physical and mental mastery.
TIP#6 teach your children to jump, leap and throw explosively, preferably in natural surroundings so they can be strong to be useful in life and build mental resilience too.
For humans to effectively process psychological trauma it seems we need to fully experience the ‘fight or flight ‘ response. If we can’t either run away from a traumatic situation or fight our way out of it, we cannot fully recover as it seems the action of responding to stress is not finished off and PTSD can develop. It seems movement is a key part of physiological process of returning to ‘safe’ mode. Talking therapies are not effective. Intense muscle activity acts as a signal to nervous tissue to switch of the fight/flight response. Learning the physical vocabulary of fighting back after trauma help create embodied safety.
TIP#7 to best recover from a stressful situation where you have been in danger and unable to fully escape or fight back, take it out in a bout of physically challenging activity or find a class that understands how trauma needs to be processed. Connect with a way that works for you.
Engaging the core is good for your mental health, right? Even a deep belly laugh has been shown to be as effective as sit-ups.
TIP #8 join a laughter Yoga class or put on some U-tube comedy you find hilarious and let rip with the belly laughs.
Fascia is connective tissue that encases organs and other internal structures like muscles. It turns out that fascia is stretchable and that during varied human activity and movement, this stretching squeezes the lymphatic fluid into the lymphatic drainage system and through lymph nodules where any toxins are identified and removed. Some organs are dynamic such as our heart and lungs, and fascia encasing them gets stretched during their movement but other areas of the body require us to be active for this to occur- it feels good to stretch!
TIP #9 Stand and stretch for a few moments every hour if you are sitting and consider joining a regular yoga class to combine stretching with strength work for extra mental benefit!
Humans seem to be the only animals able to control their breathing (aside form the odd trained pet) and probably developed this skill about the time we evolved speech.
Sighing is a natural reflex to stop our lung air sacs from sticking together following a period of shallow breathing and other animals do this too. It can also act as a reset after periods of stress providing a mental ‘full stop’ to put a stressful time behind us. Mastering the depth and rate of our breathing can alter the workings of our brain and body to change settings and increase creativity and cognition by managing our brainwaves to synchronise with our breath. The strongest synchronising effect occurs with the in-breath through our nose as sensory neurones there send messages to the brain. In particular this influences the processing of memories and emotions. People who can better synchronise their breathing to their brainwaves have faster reaction times. Slow, deliberate breathing through the nose increases mental focus and even just paying attention to our breathing for a few minutes at a time is effective for tuning in with how our body is feeling and to manage our emotions. Using our diaphragm as in deeper breathing can synchronise with slower brainwaves associated with relaxation and passive attention. Buddhist monks can achieve breathing rates as slow as 2-3/min. This eventually results in an altered state of ‘being’, outside of the thinking brain. For the beginner, this is hard to achieve without falling asleep! Breathing at 6 breaths /min is a physiological sweet spot where the autonomic nervous system is calmed and cognition is improved though optimal blood flow. However any diaphragmatic breathing we do will make us feel good. Chanting or even saying the rosary, requires us to breathe at this rate.
The vagus nerve, which has connections to the diaphragm, regulates inflammation and over time the regular practice of slow breathing can reset our stress reactivity, modifying the level of response and speed of recovery. Movement in time with breathing is also helpful, e.g. Tai Chi, Qigong, etc.
TIP #10 practice mindfulness or TaiChi and become aware of your breathing to help modify your stress levels and practice slow deep breathing through your nose (in for 5s, out for 5s) to boost your mental health. If it all gets too much try slowing down to 3 breaths /min!
Finally, it needs to be said that human beings need adequate rest. Sleep is essential to life. Rats deprived of sleep in laboratory studies die after a couple of weeks of continued wakefulness. During sleep our brainwaves change and slow to allow memory processing and storage. As well sleep provides a mental spring clean where the fluid that bathes our brain clears away waste products accumulated during the day. Also rogue proteins like those linked with Alzheimers, get cleared out. We process our emotions during deep REM sleep which tends to occur toward the end of the sleep cycle.
Growth hormone is released while we sleep, to rebuild and repair the adult body and grow the developing one. The immune system is also enhanced and inflammation is held in check. Western culture seems to view sleep as an indulgence. 7-9 hours of sleep/night appears to be optimal, however there can be considerable individual variation. High scores for resting correlate with better wellbeing and that doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping. Any activity we choose that we enjoy and find engaging and pleasurable can be beneficial restoratively. If we have less than 5-6hrs /day of this kind of rest we can tip into boredom, stress and guilty feelings.
TIP #11 sleep in a cool, dark, quiet, comfortable bedroom. Get up at the same time each morning. Take some time every day to have fun doing something that you enjoy.
If you do get stressed out because of inadequate rest you can feel physically exhausted although you have not been physically challenged. There are two options to reset in response and they both involve movement -either high intensity exercise to douse and end the stress or we can reset or by stretching and moving in synchrony with our breathing. This hacks the stress response and allows our minds to wander freely.
TIP #12 After an extended period without rest MOVE your body in whichever way described above which seems best for you to reset and fall into a natural restorative sleep.
..but don’t take my word for it, read the book yourself and make sure you sit on the floor, not in a chair while you do so!