Better than jogging? Taking a class exercises your body and your brain

November 26, 2014                 3m read time
Kirsten Akens


'Tis the season for New Year's resolutions. Your annual prompt to sign up for that class you’ve always thought about but never tried—rock climbing, home brewing, fill-in-the-blank. Don't let that list fall by the wayside this year. Research shows that learning something new not only physically changes your brain (for the better), but it also leaves you with the sense that you’re living your life to the fullest.

I know, you’re over there saying, “I don’t have time to commit to a class right now.” But you do. According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study released last summer, if you’re an employed adult with no children in the house, you’re engaging in leisure activities—everything from mountain biking to watching reruns of Doctor Who to obsessively scanning Facebook—for 4.5 hours a day. And parents, yes, your kiddos may be digging into some of your leisure time, but you’re still racking up about 3.5 hours daily.

So now that we’ve determined you have at least a full day of free time each week, how about dedicating some of those hours to learning a new skill? Your whole body will thank you for it.

Take, for instance, your brain.

While scientists once thought the brain hardened in people’s mid-20s, more and more evidence is showing that’s not true. Turns out that neurocircuitry can and does transform as we age.

A couple dancing ZOZI

A couple dancing

ZOZI

 

“Practically on a daily basis we are learning about the plasticity of the brain,” says Deborah Thornton, Curious Choreographer of Creativity with Imagination Celebration, a Colorado nonprofit dedicated to creative learning. Because of this, Thornton, who had long considered herself part of the arts community, now says she sees herself “in the brain business.”

“We can start stagnating, so it’s essential for our mental health and aging process to keep developing new neural pathways,” she explains. “Anything that we do for ourselves that takes us on a new path of thinking or experience is beneficial to our lives.”

Those benefits can include making “other parts of our life easier,” writes Thorin Klosowski in “The Science Behind How We Learn New Skills” on Lifehacker. “The benefits of learning stretch further than just being good at something … learning a new skill has all kinds of unexpected benefits, including improving working memory, better verbal intelligence, and increased language skills.”

Which brings us to mental wellbeing.

When you’re learning something new, your mind lets go of the endless chatter that causes you stress in order to focus on the challenge at hand. And unlike, say, settling into the couch for an hour of Grand Theft Auto, “learning a more lasting new skill—be it playing guitar or learning to speak a foreign language—can equally harness the brain’s joy of learning new things, but leave you with something of permanent value,” writes cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus in his CNN.com story, “Learn Something New—Your Brain Will Thank You.” “It leaves you with a sense of fulfillment, which goes back to what pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualization.’”

A large group Zumba class Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

A large group Zumba class

Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ

 

Marcus goes on to explain that as Aristotle realized, “there is a difference between the pleasures of the moment (hedonia), and the satisfaction that comes from constantly developing and living one’s life to the fullest (eudaimonia). In recent years, scientists have finally begun to study eudaimonia. Research suggests that the greater sense of purpose and personal growth associated with eudaimonia correlates with lower cortisol levels, better immune function, and more efficient sleep.”

Thornton notes that even with all these benefits, sometimes the hardest part of learning a new skill is admitting you’re not already perfect (or even just good) at it. But it’s worth signing up for that first class.

“If we pursue things we’ve secretly wanted to do … the joy and the sense of accomplishment carry through in so many ways,” she says.  “Any time we’re learning something new, we’re enlarging a capacity for joy.”

A better-wired brain and more joy? Sign me up. And you, too.

Kirsten Akens

Kirsten is an award-winning journalist, editor, photographer and practicing yogi based in Colorado. A lover of books, balasana, baked goods, blogging, and Boston terriers, she also has an unnatural affection for alliteration.

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