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Many people seem to care about what will happen to their physical quality of life as they get older. But do you wonder what will happen to your mental quality of life as you get older?

I think we readily understand the importance of maintaining physical fitness. We can see middle-aged and retirees out on the sidewalks and in fitness clubs all over the world. But do we understand the importance of maintaining mental fitness? Where do people go, or what do they do to build up and maintain mental fitness

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I saw this article in a local printed paper, and have run across the topic in various brain books (like in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain). I even had the pleasure of a neurologist/swimmer attending our swim camp in September who happens to specialize in Alzheimer’s patients. These sources have all reinforced my understanding for the need we have to exercise the brain through the entire course of life in order to preserve neurological health (think “high quality mental life”), or at least postpone degradation as long as possible.

Those who don’t notice aging knocking on the door yet may not think much about this. For middle-aged people our family and professional lives and pursuits are probably challenging enough for the brain. But there is a time when most people think about ‘retiring’, or dream of what they would do if they could become independently wealthy – and I fear that often means a lifestyle with a massive reduction in work for the body and brain in general. This would be a misguided dream.

One one hand, so much of the modern work and life people experience is stressful in a negative way so it is important we find ways to escape that. But there is a difference between types of stress on the brain which are eventually destructive, which must be reduced, and types of stress on the brain which keep it strong and sharp, which must be maintained.

The saying for the body goes for the brain too: use it (well) or lose it.

TI Head Coach Terry Laughlin is a passionate advocate for the health benefits of swimming – particularly the form practiced in Total Immersion because it has the swimmer build  not just metabolic/muscular fitness (as masters workouts seems to provides so well), it has the swimmer build neurologic fitness – engaging many parts of the brain and body into the holistic problem-solving activity.

Language-Learning

At the end of this short newspaper article the author also suggested language learning as an excellent brain-exercising activity. I can attest to its effect having spent the last eight years immersed in the Turkish language. It has been a hard and an excellent mental exercise. And when I visit a new country for teaching I often get someone to help me make a list of numbers and body parts so I can practice a bit of that language too. While my swim students are working hard to learn some new swimming skills I demonstrate that I am a student too working to learn a few words and phrases in their language.

Next month I am sad to be moving away from beloved Turkey, and taking my family back to Oregon USA to focus on some needs there. However, because of my value for the mental fitness language-learning provides I am already planning how I can keep working on the Turkish I’ve got and then how to start working on another language. Language-learning is hard work, but it is satisfying on many levels. Though I do not regard myself as a natural at it, nor do I have that spongy child-brain to soak it up in a matter of months, I know that just the effort is doing me good, even if I never come to master it. I trust that the effort I put into the process of mastery is what will keep my brain fit.

Pursuing a new language is one of many options for staying mentally strong. The main point is getting serious exercise for the brain. It doesn’t matter if you are gifted for the task, it doesn’t matter if you are older than 10. It’s the mastery process of brain-training – slow or fast – that does wonders for the brain, not the arrival at mastery. One does not need to become proficient at using a new language in order to benefit from the exercise of trying to learn it. (No doubt that achieving some level of proficiency will keep the motivation high).

Find A Good, Enjoyable Process

That’s the point: selecting a suitable process is as important as the goal itself. It may not be language-learning (though it may likely be swimming because you are reading this blog, after all!) but find some realm of skill you are really fascinated by which also has a well-developed brain-training process of learning behind it. Perhaps the goal of achieving some great thing is just a tool to get you involved in life-enhancing body-and-brain-training practice. The practice that matters more for your health than the goal does.

Here is a good example: I am coaching a 50-something swimmer as he prepares to swim the Gibraltar Strait, which will be about 17-22km, depending on the currents and conditions on that day. He only started swimming a few years ago. He quite clearly declares that the swim will be awesome but it is not the main point. He loves what this kind of training for body and mind and attitude is doing to his whole life. The one-time accomplishment will just be a bonus.

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In order to keep our brains relatively young and vibrant (= more resistant to disease and decay) we need to seek out training processes that are good at exercising several interactive sections of the brain, and even better if it also involves the whole body. Or more specifically, we need to seek out activities that involve problem-solving processes which require the brain to build new circuits to control new skills. This necessarily requires persistent effort. If the brain senses you are serious about learning it will gear itself up to support that lifestyle, and vice-versa – if it senses you are not serious about learning new things it will slow down support for those activities (it has something to do with provoking neuro stem cell recruitment, if I understand correctly). A learning-lifestyle gains momentum so that it gets more exciting and feels ‘easier’, while a non-learning lifestyle has inertia which is hard to overcome.

Now, if you deep-practice persistently to build new skills, even if there is a damaged part of the brain, the construction of new circuits may even move into previously unused or underutilized sections of the brain to get more space for it – and it is suggested that we humans have A LOT of under-utilized space up there! Therapists who specialize in neurologically impaired or injured patients, like my wife, work hard to get them motivated to persist in the training so that this neuro-regenesis has a chance to happen.

There are many books one can read on how this works in the brain (another recommendation is Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain) and encourage you to find suitable brain-exercising activities. The real challenge for a sustainable practice is to find those activities that really fit you as a person so you can remain persistent in that activity for many years.

I previously wrote about Josh Waitzkin who became a chess champion at an early age. Chess undoubtedly is a masterful brain-training activity. The downside is that it is not very physical. Josh moved on to T’ai Chi and then quickly to its martial form T’ai Chi Chuan which then integrated the best of both brain and body training. That combo is really the ideal – like chess with the whole body. Now he is out teaching others (especially children) how to live this way in his The Art Of Learning Project.

Of course, you are reading my blog because you are interested in mindful swimming. The good news is that Total Immersion is designed to be practiced within this body-and-brain-training paradigm. Follow the practice principles in the TI method and you’ll have a life-time supply of neuron-building activities in the water, regardless of age or athletic history.

So, what are you waiting for? You can start building new circuits today. It’s not too late to start. And, you don’t need to worry about getting to the destination – the most important step is just getting on the path.

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