Neuroplasticity and Our Ever-Shrinking Concentric Circles
What is Neuroplasticity: The brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. - Medicinenet.com
According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 61 percent of U.S. adults reported unwanted weight change since the beginning of the pandemic. 42 percent of survey respondents indicated undesired weight gain. Ominously, the number was even higher for younger generations: nearly half of Millennials, and slightly over half of Generation Z. The survey reports some eye-popping numbers, not just in overall percentages but also in average weight gain for those who reported having gained it (29 pounds overall, 28 pounds for Gen Z, and a whopping 41 pounds for Millennials).
We enter the age of doing less. The pandemic and working from home have accelerated what the art rock band Devo called devolution, the degrading of the human condition. Our current devolution is due to a lack of physical exertion bought on by restrictions, closures, and above all else, working from home.
100 years ago, only 33% of American homes had electricity and 68% of the workforce worked physically demanding jobs. Food was organic and life was rugged. In 2021 American workers no longer chop wood, haul coal, wash clothes on a washboard or ride and keep horses.
Life was physically demanding in 1920. The Spanish Influenza was still lingering. A strange flu, it killed 140 million worldwide and struck down the hardiest members of the human species. It attacked and killed my muscled-up blacksmith Irish grandfather (in 1918) leaving his young children and feeble wife untouched.
Our current pandemic has caused humans to move in ever smaller concentric circles of movement and activity, thus further accelerating the physical breakdown of the species. Left unstressed, the human body degrades, it falls apart, devolution.
One medical professional friend was agog at the acceleration of the devolution. He expressed chagrin at a new trend: people crippled by the slightest exertion, this a reaction to new heights and levels of inactivity.
“There is a new level of unfitness. We as a species were not doing all that great before all this forced inactivity. The flu caused the inactive to become more so. For so many, the new paradigm is to wake up, eat, then start working from home sitting at the computer. The refrigerator is always a few steps away.”
“The old paradigm involved a minimum of activity: wake up, drive to work, get out, walk to the office, walk around to office all day before walking back to the car or public transportation. Not that this was ideal or particularly beneficial, but at least we had some degree of daily movement.”
“Now it's as if everyone has aged a decade. Gyms are closed and inactivity is the new accepted norm. The new norm sets them up for preventable injury. After a mentally exhausting day, sitting all day, folks eat a big meal and sit down and watch a movie on Netflix.”
“I quiz my patients when they come to me with an injury. A typical example: last week a patient racked his back picking up a 35-pound child. The child struggles a little bit, and their 43-year-old father rips a back muscle. Young people are becoming prematurely feeble. Old people are accelerating their own oblivion: feebleness, loss of function and mobility and inactivity are the new norm. Weakness is the breeding ground for injury.”
So, as Mick Jagger once asked, what is a poor boy to do?
Use it or lose it: can technology help?
A lot of people are realizing that the work from home lifestyle is killing them slowly. It is no coincidence that upscale home training systems such as Peloton and NordicTrac are extremely popular with upscale, monied clients that can afford to spend thousands on the core device and then pay a stiff monthly fee to ‘interact’ with an elite trainer who comes into your home via the marvel of modern technology.
Of course, the results are only as good as the instruction given and while the technology is revolutionary, the instruction given is decidedly underwhelming; most of the instruction that accompanies these interactive devices are that same old non-productive fitness wine served in a flashy hi-tech bottle.
While the totally unfit might benefit from the paid cheerleaders that appear onscreen, it remains to be seen if the cost/benefit ratio will weigh in favor of these expensive systems delivering mundane fitness messages. Stripped of fluff and dazzling footwork, the exercise strategies presented are largely cardio-based methodology straight out of 1985.
The solution? This is where neuroplasticity come in. Neuroplasticity is a beneficial rewiring of brain circuitry in response to purposefully presenting the brain with new challenges. By purposefully thinking and reacting in new and different ways to new and different stimulus brain complacency, the prequel to dementia, is dynamited.
The smart move is to apply neuroplasticity tactics to “fitness,” strength training, whatever defining phrase you apply to your transformational physiological efforts. Neuroplasticity demands new ways to go about old challenges: we need to change the way we train, the way we eat, the way we think – and to a dramatic degree. The benefits of neuroplasticity only manifest in response to dramatic changes in our current way of doing things.
When Marlon Brando’s character in the Wild Ones was asked, “Johnny – what are you rebelling against?!!” Brando deadpanned, “What do you got?” And so, it is with fitness neuroplasticity: we need to rebel against whatever it is you are doing. It is no longer working if it ever worked at all.
Are you training at all? Are you paying attention to your diet? If not, the first step in neuroplasticity is to create and adhere to some sort of logical training/nutrition template. The most elemental and recommended form of cardiovascular exercise is power walking. Out-of-shape folks can generate a spectacularly elevated heart rate simply by walking with effort and intensity. Strength training for those out of shape is doable with free-hand exercise. Nutrition is easy: clean up the quality of the caloric intake and reduce the volume.
For those that are already paying attention to nutrition, for those currently training that have become stagnant, devise a counterstrategy for whatever you are doing nutritionally and devise a strategy antithetical to your current resistance and cardio protocols.
Riding a stationary bike is not enough. Moving your limbs in synchronization with a remote trainer is not enough. Dieting is not enough. There need be a synchronized interplay between diet and exercise.
So much of what passes for expert fitness training are either small robotic movements done on machinery or mindless, limb-flinging ‘exercise’ that has no fundamental impact on any physique, other than on the completely out-of-shape beginner. The exercise prescriptions are too broad, too generalized, most are too mild or diffuse to be effective.
To generate true neuroplasticity, take a long hard look at your current resistance training, cardiovascular and nutritional protocols. The key is to begin training and dieting if you are not already and if you are training and dieting with purpose but without effect, legislate some contrast. “A goal without a plan is a wish”
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.