Movement and (Mental) Longevity – Cognitive and Emotional

Tell me one thing in this universe which remains the same even just for one split second. I haven’t discovered any of this yet.

So that means stagnation – standing still, standing locked, standing blocked – is not an invention of this life. It’s an invention of the human mind.

Things are already flowing, it’s just that we don’t realize where is the flow. It’s because inside, each human has different blockages, different things that make him stagnate, make him stand still.

The flow is already there, life is already happening, you only must allow it and enter into it. And that means remove stagnation, remove blockages.

Shi Yeng Hi

I’ve talked a lot of the benefits or stillness (both physical and mental) in the past. However, being sedentary for too long has detrimental effects. On the flip side, movement can also be used in various ways to benefit the mind.

Movement can open up blockages and release tension stored in muscles/joints from traumas, improve your mood, focus and reaction speed, preserve your nervous system, and even strengthen cognitive functions like memory and learning.

This applies to fine and course movements in the broad sense, but I’m also speaking about movement within our body, i.e., circulation.

General Movement and Mood, Attention and Reaction Time

Your body releases an assortment of neurochemicals when you move it, even in just a general sense—the improvements in mood comes from serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline, responsible for things like happiness and wellbeing, motivation, and attention or alertness, respectively.

Here are some findings from a study by neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki’s lab, looking at the benefits of a singular ten-minute walk.

…so what do you get with the one-off? You get is that mood boost, very, very consistent. You get improved prefrontal function [attention], and significant improvements in reaction time. So your cognitive motor response is improved.”

Dr. Wendy Suzuki

So by moving about, all of those hormones are released and result in those mental improvements (neuroplasticity)—even simply just by walking.

However, you can really take it to the next level with power walking, or any other movement you can make to get your heart rate up. With aerobic exercise, a growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF) is also released, which has even more profound effects on the mind.

Cardiovascular Exercise and Neurogenesis, Memory

For the layman like me, growth factors are signaling proteins that stimulate new cell growth. Specifically, BDNF is a molecule that can cause neurogenesis, the creation of neural brain cells.

When released, it goes directly to your hippocampus and it allows brand new brain cells to grow there. The hippocampus is the brain region associated with learning memory formation, consolidation, and retrieval.

In a 2018 study of mice, intermittent running on a wheel triggered neurogenesis – the addition of new neurons – in the hippocampus. However, though there was also improvements in function in other brain regions, like the neocortex, no neurogenesis was seen in these areas.

This seems to due to an indirect relationship between exercise and new neuron growth, meaning it is by way of improvements in cardiovascular function. As far as I’m aware, there’s no direct link between exercise and the creation of new neurons in the brain.

Load Bearing Exercise and Neurogenesis, Memory

In particular, load-bearing exercise – things like dancing, skateboarding, Chen-style tai chi, stair climbing, or even walking – has been shown to improve neurogenesis. These type of activities are shown to enact the release of the hormone osteocalcin.

The stronger the bones, the more osteocalcin they secrete, which then travels to the hippocampus and makes memory and stress-tolerance cells there.

So, by partaking in load-bearing exercise, you stimulates the division of these cells in that region of the brain, strengthening the electrical activity and formation of connections to create and recall new memories.

Movement and Preservation of Brain Matter

It seems there’s a lot of weight behind the saying, “move it or lose it.”

As neuroscience has progressed, we’ve learned that the maintenance of and likely improvements in brain neural circuitry depends on our movements and signals from the body that our brain is still moving.

Neuropsychiatrist and best-selling author, John Ratey, has observed species of ocean-dwelling animals that have very intricate nervous systems. But then these specimens plop down under a rock, stick to it, and don’t move for rest of their lives.

Then, because they’re stationary and not using it, these animals begin to digest a good portion of their nervous system, including the brain. Their body decides, well it seems I don’t need this anymore, and they gobble it up for its nutritional content.

Speaking of body tissues, it’s not just brain matter that is impacted by motion. Fascia that has tightened as a self-protective mechanism from physical or emotional stress (trauma) can be loosened and rearranged through movement.

“The Issue is in the Tissue”

“Ida Rolf, who created Rolfing or structural integration said, “the issues are in the tissues.” And around the spine—the spine is us.

What will sit there in this stagnation? Emotion, material, thoughts, traumas. That’s why people get discharges. The body memory is not what we think it is—it is stored everywhere, and I’ve had those experiences. When a certain emotion is evoked, people start to undulate the spine. So, this can be worked from this direction or from this direction.

Movement expert Ido Portal

We’ve knows for some time that the fascia contains our emotional, traumatic history. Emotional blockages (traumas, stressors) manifest as physical obstructions in body (the jaw, neck and hips in particular), which is something I had posited since I began doing qigong regularly.

Though Ido suggests movement for unlocking these blockages, even just relaxing and breathing into specific areas of my body, decreasing the secretion of cortisol and allowing the fascia to lengthen and loosen (move) has proven to be beneficial to me.

Pure, balanced breathing that utilizes the correct posture engages the muscles and nervous system in a way that helps you tune in to your body and brings awareness to stresses, imbalances and scarring from pent up trauma.

Doing this brings the spots you are holding tension into your consciousness, and you are then able to work out the tension or blockages there with a swift movement of that area or by applying pressure there (self-massage).

The detection and release of these traumas stored in the tissue can be greatly aided using various Qigong principles and practices.

Unique Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi

I would be remiss if I didn’t bring the whole ball of wax back to my true love, as I almost always do. Dynamic qigong practice has its own special place in the realm of movement’s mental (and physical) benefits.

As I was getting to, some techniques – self-massage, acupressure, body practice (moving or standing), breath practice, and even just the inner-smile (mind practice) have helped be alleviate emotional blockages that manifest as structural tension (stress) in the joints and muscles. Unfortunately, I’m blanking on specific examples at the moment.

It may sound crazy, but I swear there’s been times when I cracked my body somewhere, most often while massaging it, and a vivid image from a distant memory (likely a past trauma) flashed in my mind at that exact moment.

These improvements in affect and wellbeing by way of releasing deep-seated trauma is absolutely one of the most powerful benefits of qigong I experience. Body awareness and self-massage allow me to quite literally “lift the weight of the world from my shoulders,” as well as my own weight I’ve evidently been carrying for years.

Though I’ve already mentioned the boon to serotonin signaling from general movement, in a study of cats, circulating levels of the hormone were increased through repetitive motion (grooming) when coupled with deep breathing.

Well, what do you think qigong is?—most times, it’s repetitive motion.

But beyond a mood boost and improved attention and brain processing speed, it also offers many other benefits that don’t apply to general movement or cardiovascular exercise.

For example, another unique advantage of tai chi and qigong is that they utilize the quads and hip flexors, muscles not typically activated in running or other aerobic exercise. These muscles are the body’s stabilizers and brakes.

And though this is a physical benefit, rather than a mental one, I think I’ve sufficiently outlined above the connection between the body and the mind—at least in terms of osteocalcin secretion, and the corresponding improvements in memory.

Though general movement doesn’t create that neurogenesis (new cell growth) we discussed in the prefrontal/neocortex, it can result in neuroplasticity in those areas—the strengthening or rewiring of synaptic connections between neurons, when the brain is reconstructed to function in some new way.

However, studies have shown qigong practitioners have a better connection between the hippocampus (memory/storage region) and PFC (thinking region) than non-practitioners. 

Finally, qigong and tai chi, acupuncture, acupressure, cupping and topical herbal medicine all enhances blood flow (circulation) and bio-magnetic electric energy flow—i.e., internal movement.

The human body is a miraculous thing. It really want to return to harmony, to heal. We just need to stop obstructing its movement by letting go of the blockages and tension we have from worries, traumas and attachments.


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