Archive | November, 2012

The Mind is a Muscle

29 Nov

Yes, I know that structurally the brain is an organ, and is quite different from a muscle.  However, functionally, our minds are just like any other muscle in our bodies.  They need exercise, they need to be fed the right things, and they need rest occasionally.

As an adult, trying to learn new things is WAY more challenging than it was as a child – I know, since I’m now studying anatomy, biology, and nutritional science having dropped out of all sciences after grade ten (thanks Humanities degree!).  I have to study my ass off first to absorb any new information, then I have to keep studying my ass of to retain it.  Then after I think I’ve got it, I study some more so it doesn’t go away.  I can’t cram to remember things for an exam and then forget them the next day anymore.  Now, if I learn something, it’s sticking.

That said, it was hard to re-learn how to learn.  After University, but before training, I felt as though my brain had atrophied.  That I was about as smart as I was ever going to get, and was probably starting to reverse the learning process.  I’m pretty sure I felt this way because I just wasn’t learning anything new.  I was doing the same thing day in and day out and hoping that I would feel better about my life.  Said Einstein (allegedly), “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

My problem was that initially, I didn’t really believe I could learn all of the things that a career/life change would require me to.  I didn’t think I had a “science-y brain”.

In Switch, by the Heath brothers, they quote a study where a middle school math teacher was able to reverse a decline in math scores by having students read aloud a scientific paper on how the mind is a muscle that can change and adapt when exercised.  Carol Dweck, Stanford psychology professor and author of MindSet has done a great deal of research on the differences between fixed mindsets – the belief that abilities are basic, fixed, and unchangeable, and growth mindsets – where challenges and failures are par for the course when improving and acquiring skills. Regardless of whether brain structure and function scientifically supports the notion that our brain is a muscle, the students’ performance suggests that all we need is to think that we can improve in order for improvement to occur.  In the book, Heath asks, “How would we differ in our own willingness to tackle changes if we started believing ‘the brain is a muscle’?”.
Neuroscientists have done great amounts of research into neuroplasticity; from Wikipedia:  “Neuroscientific research indicates that experience can actually change both the brain’s physical structure and functional organization.”

Knowing that your brain can, and does, change is key for a number of reasons:

  • Trying new things
  • Accomplishing stuff you didn’t think you could
  • Being better at things you can already do
  • Generally making progress at anything

Just like in fitness, where progressive overload means that your body is challenged with new movement patterns, heavier weights, and more challenging combinations, your brain needs to stay challenged to make progress.

You can challenge your brain any number of different ways – there’s a push towards “mental fitness” these days.  Computer games and such that challenge your mental agility.  Mental training can have a huge impact on your physical performance as well.  Every now and then, in my derby league, we have mental fortitude practices (an idea that Bonnie D. Stroir passed along).  Days that may not be so physically challenging, but that make you think hard about what you are doing on the track, or get your adrenaline pumping.  For example, scrimmaging in the opposite direction, playing super-loud music during a drill to force focus, or teaching a skill and then doing it on one foot, then backwards, then in the opposite direction.

There’s tons of research to support the idea that training the brain is crucial to training the body.  In fitness, we often say “train the movement, not the muscle”.   Muscles are dumb, they don’t have memory, brains are smart, they do have memory.  Faulty movement patterns, as well as correct ones, live in the brain.  Corrective exercise isn’t just a warm-up or a filler, it’s skill acquisition.  We can use this to our advantage by really digging into how correct movement patterns feel and tapping into unconscious learning.  If we remember that feel is just as important as form, the learning is much more likely to continue into day-to-day life.  I may not find myself breaking down a full squat pattern in my office, but maybe I’ll remember what engaging my glutes feels like when I stand up from my desk chair.

Greg Rose had a great presentation at Perform Better Chicago this past summer about training the brain.  He compared block training (doing the same thing over and over again) with random training (performing variations on a movement pattern) and looked at the gains made by both styles.  Initially, the block training made rapid, dramatic gains, and rightfully so.  Doing one thing over and over and over makes you good at that thing reasonably quickly.  However, over time, the variable training stuck better, and the gains manifested over time.  The block trainees peaked, whereas the variable trainees retained the initial skill and kept building on it over time.  The example he used was math – he had one volunteer answer the same question over and over again, and the volunteer got really good at knowing the answer to that question really quickly.  Why?  Because he memorized the answer.  Next he had a volunteer answer that question, and then a different question, and then a different question, and so on.  The first volunteer could definitely answer the first question more quickly, but over time the second volunteer was better at math.  Same goes for correct movement patterns.  Get people moving well first, then give them greater physical and mental challenges, and they’ll get better at everything.

Mental training and fortitude improves physical performance.  However, the reverse is also true.  Physical exertion can improve your mental health and performance as well.  Not only are the endorphins generated during exercise a nice pick-me-up to your day, but challenging your body can help your cognitive functioning.

Also from Wikipedia:  In a 2009 experiment led by researchers at National Cheng Kung University,  two groups of mice swam a water maze, and then engaged in an avoidance task – gauging how quickly they would move away from an unpleasant stimulus. Then, for four weeks, one group of mice ran on their wheels (which mice seem to enjoy), while the other group ran harder on mini-treadmills at a speed and duration controlled by the scientists. They then tested both groups again to track their learning skills and memory. Both groups of mice improved their performances in the water maze. Only the treadmill mice were better in the avoidance task, a skill which demands a more complicated, cognitive response.  Exercise improved both sets of results, but more challenging exercise improved cognition.   “Our results support the notion that different forms of exercise induce neuroplasticity changes in different brain regions,” Chauying J. Jen, a professor of physiology and an author of the study, says.

Other recent studies have provided human examples as well. In an experiment published in the ASCM journal, 21 University of Illinois students were asked to memorize a string of letters and then pick them out from a list flashed at them. They then did one of three things for 30 minutes — sit quietly, run on a treadmill, or lift weights — before repeating the test, they were then given a 30-minute cool-down and tested again. The test was repeated twice more, on different days, with students engaging in each of the options.  Running improved performance, both in speed and accuracy the retest (as well as the post- cooldown retest), when compared with the other two options.  (source) 

So, let’s keep going with the idea that our brain is like a muscle, that can grow, change and adapt when exposed to challenging stimuli.  Like any other muscle, its gains come from acute bouts of exercise followed by rest.

Your mental fitness demands rest – just like your physical fitness does.  We make thousands of decisions every day, we challenge our minds in all sorts of ways, we need to make sure that we give our brains down time as well.  Whatever that looks like to you – going for a walk, meditation, a long bath with a gossip magazine – it’s all important to your mental recovery.  And while we’re on that subject, we go to the dentist for a check-up twice a year, the doctor once a year, when was the last time you had a mental health check-up?  Look into it.  Letting stress, negative mental messaging, poor coping mechanisms mess with your mental health will take a toll on all aspects of your health and performance.  Your sleep will suffer, as will your cognitive, physical, and emotional functioning.

So look after your brain.  Keep it just as fit as your body.  Take it to the doctor every now and then for a check-up.  Feed it good food (both literally and figuratively, with the media you consume).  Exercise it well and often.  Believe that with proper prompting your brain (as well as your abilities and your notions about yourself) will change, adapt, and improve.  And finally, make time to let it rest.

What I’m Reading Today: Off-Season Edition

15 Nov

Today’s post will be a super-short one.  I was working on a post about how I feel about derby and the off-season,  and then this beauty turned up:


I so very much agree that we need to be taking breaks.  Actual ones.

And I agree that we need to be putting just as much planning into our training schedule as we do our bouting schedule.

Tush knows what she’s talking about.  Most every sport takes time off so that  athletes can recharge, rehab, and recommit. Derby should too.

Give the post a read.  Take a real off-season.  I’ll be back with a way longer post next week.

Have a fantastic Thursday!

Perfectly Aged Meat

8 Nov

It’s been a challenging, interesting, whirlwind season for my league.  We faced many, many retirements, injuries, and leaves, all the while taking in our largest batch of fresh meat yet.  We lost some founding skaters, and hopefully, have found some of the skaters that will drive our future.

A whole bunch of TCRG fresh meat have recently graduated into full league skaters and we are now gearing up for the draft.  We have such an amazing bunch of girls coming up in this intake that this year’s draft may actually be a fight to the death (Stacie Jones, Fox Smoulder, you better be ready).  It’s an exciting time for all of the teams.

At the end of October, we had a double-header: Our new girls “The Tri-City Kitties”  v. Niagara Roller Girls’ Fresh Meat “The Niagara Puppies” and our WFTDA charter team, Thunder v. Queen City Roller Girls Lake-Effect Furies.

(photo courtesy of Joe Mac)

Both bouts were awesome.  You could just feel the excitement coming off the new girls as they lined up for their first bout.  It was infectious and the game was a pleasure to watch.  After a super close first half, the Kitties held Niagara scoreless for all of the second, managing to rack up a decent score, with a 85-15 final.  As a head of training for TCRG, it made my heart swell to see how great the Kitties did.  We had lost some key trainers over the season, and it was reassuring to know that our girls were still in good hands.

(photo courtesy of Joe Mac)

Thunder’s bout with the Furies was a rematch of a rematch.  Thunder won their first meeting in July of 2010 with a score of 72-51, lost a 179-153 heart-breaker almost exactly a year prior in October 2011, and came in with something to prove.  After losing some longtime Thunder vets, I think that Thunder wanted to prove, mostly to themselves, that they could come together and play the strongest game they had – win or lose.  They did just that and won, in a tooth-and-nail, blood-and-sweat 179-163 nail-biter.

After that, we had a mixed scrimmage season closer, which (I think) ended the season off right.  All of our home teams were so depleted that all coming together and playing a super-fun Team Frat Burger v. Team Retro Rocket Comics game was just what we needed.  There was much heckling, much silliness, and very much derby love.  (side note: Team Meat totally creamed Team Nerd) 

(photo courtesy of Joe Mac)

It’s been a while since I’ve felt the league this unified, everyone working hard towards the same goal, the excitement of the newer skaters not grating on the jaded veterans, but rather fueling them to fall back in love with whatever it is that keeps us all doing what we do.

It can be tough to restructure, to have a re-growth sort of year.  And that’s what I think we’re heading into.  Here a few different strategies for dealing with change:

1) Freak Out.  Resist Change.

Isolate the new skaters, make them feel awkward.  Hope they quit, so things go sort of back to how they were before.  Don’t talk to or partner with anyone new at practice.  Make sure that no one ever sits in your spot in the changeroom.  Make sure that everyone knows how pissed off you are about the changes that are happening.

2) Embrace Change.  All the Change.  Make Change Your New Everything.

Re-vote the Board, re-vote your captains, re-vote your team names, your by-laws and your practice structure.  Change it all.  Only ever work with skaters you don’t know.  Change your derby name.  And don’t get overwhelmed, because change is great and things will turn out awesome.  Outside of derby, this is when you decide to go from never training and eating whatever to Working Out Every Day, Only Eating Whole Foods, Sleeping 8 Hours A Night, and Drinking Gallons Of Water All The Time.  Sound familiar? (not saying those are bad or that you can’t do them all at once, but maybe small, sustainable changes are more realistic)

3) Be a Little Scared of the Change.  Deal With It.  Make Changes That Need to Happen.  Keep the Things That Are Working the Same.

Generally, it’s best pick this one (though sometimes we all find ourselves veering towards the other two).  Work with the new girls – be patient.  They haven’t been playing for years, they will make mistakes.  Try to build them up, rather than break them down – make them feel like they made a good choice coming to (and staying with) your league.  Integrate the new girls into roles that suit them and draw on their strengths.  Deal with your feelings about the changes – Do you need a break?  Do you need to mentor someone?  Do you need to focus on yourself?  Do you need to reach out to your team? Be honest about where you are at with derby and check in with yourself as things evolve.   Make the changes that you need to make to keep yourself in love with derby.

When I started playing, I thought derby would be my salvation.  And in some ways, it has been.  It’s given me a new body, a new outlook on health and fitness, and a new career.  It’s given me a whole host of new friends, and four years of great times.

It’s also been the source of sleepless nights, arguments, hysterical crying before practice, an overfull inbox, various injuries, and neglected non-derby friends.

It wasn’t until my third season that I let myself off the hook for derby stuff.  I had to make hard choices – leaving Thunder – so that I wouldn’t just pack up and quit entirely.  I had to look myself in the face and ask what I wanted from derby and what I was willing and able to give.  And I am SO GLAD that I did.

Being honest with myself kept me sane, and kept me playing.  In the face of lots of change – that’s your best option: Be honest.  Know what you can handle and what you can’t.  Get on with it.

We have to face a lot of changes in our lives.  Let’s face it honestly, with courage and determination.  I have a feeling that’s how TCRG is going to head into our 2013 season, and I couldn’t be prouder or more excited to be a part of it.

TCRG ♥ (photo courtesy of Joe Mac)

Ready, Set, ‘Mo: The Start of Movember

1 Nov

It’s the first day of November, and you all know what that means:


A whole month of moustaches.

The first couple of weeks of Movember are tough for everyone, I think.  All the dudes look like this:

And it’s just awkward for everyone.

Mid-month is where we really separate the men from the boys, and by the end of November, some moustache glory happens.

My lovely and talented spouse is officially participating in Movember for the first time and I’m super-proud of his efforts.  His first effort being shaving off his epic sideburns to start with a clean slate.  Next, to grow this:

He likes to aim high.

That said, if there’s one thing that Slim is good at, it’s growing hair out of his face.   If you want to follow his efforts, click on the ‘stache.

Yes, I know this post isn’t really about fitness, or about derby (though Slim announces derby all over Ontario so it sort of is), but it is about health.

Whether or not you can get behind the ‘staches, ‘Mo Bros raise vital funds and awareness for men’s health, specifically prostate cancer and male mental health initiatives.  So far, Movember’s initiatives have raised over $310 million globally.

To put it eloquently, from Movember Canada’s website: “Mo Bros effectively become walking, talking billboards for the 30 days of November. Through their actions and words, they raise awareness by prompting private and public conversation around the often ignored issue of men’s health.”

Yes, the moustaches are silly.  Yes, everyone looks like a nerd for the first week of November.  Yes, it becomes much tougher to make out with your spouse as the month draws to a close.  But it does so much good.  So, I’m cheering for Slim and won’t shave his face fur off while he sleeps.

Good luck, Slim’s upper lip.  I’ll see you again in December.