Matters of Muscle and Mind

R.C. Fields: “Humor is nothing but extreme positive thinking”

Unfortunately, we live in a very serious world. When we are infants we laugh hundreds of times per day. As adults we laugh only 1-2x per day. It is really undeniable that laughing and smiling just make us feel better. Try it right now. Put a smile on your face for 1 whole minute… Hold hit really big. It might feel silly, but just try it. Now try not to laugh… Read this:

[Mahatma Gandhi, as most know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath.This made him (this is so bad, it's good): A super-calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.]

Feel better already? Adding humor to your life is critical to refreshing your mind. I always feel better after telling a joke, as just making people laugh has the same effect on me. I keep a few good ones in the back of my mind and bring them out almost as often as breaking into spontaneous dance.

There’s a lot of talk about the “mind-body” connection in modern scientific and contemporary literature. Positive mental attitude and stress relieving strategies like meditation, mindfulness, and even humor can clearly affect your body’s physiology. Lowering levels of stress hormones through these techniques has beneficial effects on your health and longevity.

In the medical community we know that pain conditions like fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis share common pathways with depression and anxiety. Medications used to treat these psychiatric conditions, like Cymbalta, can improve pain symptoms and quality of life. Furthermore, the link between the mind and your body’s physiology, especially hormones, supports the use of psychological therapy in the treatment of symptoms related to the hormonal changes of aging.

Something that is way too under-recognized is the effect of the body on the brain. It is quite intuitive that if your body is healthy you’re probably in a better state of mind than if you were ill and lying in a hospital bed. However, the interplay between your body and mind are very intricate and research is finding new pathways for the body to manipulate the health of your brain.

The brain is very “plastic”, meaning it is able to grow and make new connections between neurons when it is trained to do so, even as we age. In the area of the brain called the hippocampus, memories and new tasks are learned via not only new connections between brain cells, but also through a process called “neurogenesis” (the growth of new brain cells). Research by Pereira and colleagues (Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Mar 27;104(13):5638-43), has examined how exercise affects this area of the brain. They discovered that exercise is a critical factor in promoting the growth and survival of new cells in the hippocampus. The conclusion that can be drawn in this research is:

Exercising the body builds the brain

There is belief in the scientific community that the human mind evolved in response to physical activity. In early man, the more athletic were the ones who were more likely to survive. Those with a better ability to hunt down their prey with greater speed and endurance did not starve and thus were able to pass down their genes through mating. Evidence suggests that species of animals with large brain sizes relative to their bodies have greater capacity for endurance exercise. However, what came first, improvement in the brain and then performance, or vice versa?

Dr. David Raichlen an anthropologist at the University of Arizona published an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology (Proc Biol Sci. 2013 Jan 7;280:1750) suggesting that physical activity may have contributed to development of the mind in early humans. Multiple animal studies show that physical activity increases the growth of brain cells in the memory and thought processing centers of the brain. Even studies of children show that increased levels of physical activity correlate to higher intelligence. This probably doesn’t include kids who experience brain injury in contact sports like football. Nevertheless, this carries into young adults and the elderly, clearly correlating physical fitness to better brain function.

One of the more interesting aspects of this research is the finding that growth factors (small proteins that affect cells in the body) such as BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) can be produced by growing muscle cells (Mol Biol Cell. 2010 Jul 1;21(13):2182-90). BDNF is a protein that when it enters circulation can cross into the brain and stimulate formation of new neurons. Strong evidence suggests that this is a real mechanism by which physical activity stimulates brain development.

So what is all of this telling us? We need to nourish both the body and mind. Whether it is by exercising, meditating, or going to a comedy club there is an undeniable and often underappreciated effect on your health. I know too many people, including myself, who do not take advantage of the stress relieving effects of fun social interactions on a regular basis. Over the years, I was so focused on success in athletics and school that I put more stress on myself by not letting my brain recuperate. I used to think that if I took a “me time” break with friends or a funny movie that I wasn’t being “productive”. In reality, I was being more destructive to my body, mind, and friends.

The G.A.I.N. Plan emphasizes the importance of “active rest” whether it is in the form of relative rest of a body part that is having pain, or actively meditating to refresh your mind. In fact, reading my book should be an active escape for you while building new healthy habits and motivating you to make positive changes in your life. Remember, it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Eat the elephant one piece at a time… Now go to Google and put in “jokes”. Find a favorite one to share with your friends and colleagues (relatively clean with a little bit of dirtiness goes a long way over raunchy).

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