Brain Fitness Exercises for elderly and children with special needs by Michael Gonzalez-Wallace
Thanks so much for your question and I am so delighted that we share the same area of interest! I will try to give you the best possible short answer although it is going to be challenging for me since your question has been my area of research for the last six years with neurobiologists, neuroscientists, kinesiologists and psychiatrists. In addition I also wrote almost 60,000 words about your question topic in my published book ‘Super Body, Super Brain”.
Let me start with this phrase from Newsweek:
“Physical activity is good not only for the heart, but also for the brain, feeding it glucose and oxygen, and increasing nerve connections, all of which makes it easier for children of all ages to learn. Numerous studies show that children who exercise do better in school.” Newsweek, /19/96
Brain Power has traditionally been associated to cognitive learning. Libraries are packed with Extensive brain fitness DVDs, software games, Crossword puzzles, sudokus, learning languages promising the desired optimal brain functioning. However aren’t we forgetting the most essential of our existence? Movement! You may get angry when you cant remember your friends name but I can guarantee that will go ballistic when you realize that you cant move in the same way as before. You may even be blaming your poor muscles or joints but the response may be in your brain. You may not have paid attention to those incredible brain areas that are responsible for balance, coordination, posture, movement intention, and precision or movement
According to my mentor neurobiologists John Martin
The motor systems of the brain and spinal cord control every movement we make, from the simplest to the most complex. Movements define us as humans every bit as much as our intellect, or our art. Movements have allowed us to excel over animals throughout evolution. Movement gives us mobility; to choose to go where and do what we want. Just as movements become hampered—such as weakness or paralysis after stroke or slowed by Parkinson’s disease—we loose something is important to us.
Motor Circuits and the Brain
Past research has established changes in brain activity which occur as a person learns to perform a novel task (Etnier, Whitwer, Landers, Petruzzello, & Salazar, 1996
Motor circuits are the networks of nerve cell connections that enable us to perform a full range of daily movements from tying up a knot to walking or moving in a specific way. However these networks require precise information from the sensory neurons located in our muscles, soft tissues. In other words movement involves both networks working together in a coordinated manner.
In simple terms in the neuromuscular system there are two types of signals:
1. AFFERENT refers to pathways leading to the brain (sensory neurons)
2. EFFERENT refers to pathways moving away from the brain to your body (motor neurons)
ELDERLY AND BRAIN FITNESS MOVEMENTS
Use it or lose it.
If we don’t use our muscles, they will wither in atrophy and if we don’t exercise our brain, our brain will shrink leading to a faster decline. If the brain is not used, different brain areas will slow down leading to a faster decline in cognitive abilities such as multitasking, learning, memory or movement. A study from Harvard University concluded that lack of brain stimulation between different sections of the brain means faster aging.
According to Dr John Ratey Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard University, exercise is the ultimate way to improve the plasticity of the brain.
My recommendations for the elderly are that they need to see a progressive improvement in balance, coordination and strength.
You can train the brain with movement in several ways: from left to right, from front to back, from your senses, from your heart and from learning. I have developed thousands of these exercises.
Here are few examples of exercises although you want to modify them for
Your population. This requires extensive individualization protocol but you can slightly get an idea: http://www.medhelp.org/healthy-living/articles/Build-a-Super-Brain--Super-Body/232
1. Brain plasticity and movement
Exercise 1: Pick up some light hand weights and alternate raising your opposite arm and leg for 2 minutes.
Muscles don’t move by themselves; they need multiple sections of the brain to help them move. Motor circuits networks are the networks of nerve cell connections that enable us to perform the full range of our daily movements. Challenge your brain with movement. If you move two muscle groups at once you need to think about it right?
Exercise 2. Agility and balance exercises
Exercise 2: From a standing position, raise one leg up and down and toss an object into the air, like a tennis ball or a sponge. Catch it ten times then change legs. Agility, hand eye coordination and balance are very important daily activities to enhance our brain muscle connection. When we age, we see how we are not as agile or balanced as before.
CHILDREN AND MOTOR SKILLS-SPECIAL NEEDS
Motor skills refers to the abilities which involve the use of large muscle groups or individual muscles, limbs, hands, feet to develop over time, starting with initial gestures such as grabbing at objects to more precise activities that involve precise hand-eye coordination. Fine motor skills are skills that involve an advanced use of the small muscles controlling the hand, fingers, and thumb. The development of these skills allows and helps children improve challenging tasks such as multitasking writing, painting, and buttoning. *
For children and my experience especially with kids with special needs (I have been working with kids with add, adhd, bipolar, autism, severe, mild, SPD) is to find movements where the children need to be focus in gross motor skills, agility and motor planning like hiking. All these activities will lead to an improvement in self-esteem, physical and mental performance. Once that we identify the areas the children have problems with we need to design a progressive exercise program.
Here are few studies and few exercises samples
Studies Linking motor movement to learning
Movement facilitates cognition. Movement is a central mission of the brain. (Sylwester)
Bodily Kinesthetic is one of eight Multiple Intelligences. (Gardner)
Most students, up to 85%, are natural kinesthetic learners. (Hannaford) Children in poverty seem to rely primarily on their kinesthetic abilities for learning. (Payne)
Repetitive gross motor movement balances brain chemicals that calm behavior and elevates self-esteem and self worth, accommodates ADD/ADHD. (Jensen)
Motor skills are fundamental to learning. Memory is retrieved better when learned through movement. (Jensen)
I hope this answer was helpful!