When I’m teaching BODYCOMBAT™ or BODYJAM™ , I keep my “day job” kind of a secret. I’m a neurologist, and I’m sub-specialized in palliative care. I look after people with degenerative brain diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease during their advanced stages, all the way through to death. Not exactly typical pre- or post- class chatter!
So I don’t talk about it. But at the same time, I can’t help but be aware of the work that our brains are doing during class. There is growing evidence that physical activity can improve learning and memory. And dance can improve movement and cognition in people with Parkinson’s disease. From what we know of the brain, you can expect that as you are exercising, hearing music, and coaching participants, your brain is working just as hard as your body, utilizing and strengthening the interconnected network of structures that coordinate movement, memory and language.
So, the next time you are teaching multiple formats on a launch week and your Facebook status shows a “head exploding” emoji, consider using “brain” and “strong” emojis instead!
Your brain is a complex network connected by both chemical and electrical signals, and it is all working while you teach a class. From the front to the back, from left to right, up and down through the brainstem, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves, the entire system is at work. You are continuously receiving sensory input from your eyes, ears, and body.
When a participant in your class changes their facial expression, that visual input is received by your eyes, travels down the optic nerves and pathways, to the occipital lobe all the way in the back of your brain. There, patterns are recognized and categorized and the information is sent to multiple other areas of the brain, including the facial recognition and social networks. These allow you to interpret that changed facial expression as a sign of frustration. Then off this information goes, zooming back to the front of your brain where the pre-frontal lobes make a motor plan to change your own facial expression, as well as to the language centers to formulate the right words to say.
As the music enters your ears you hear and interpret the sounds, then retrieve the corresponding memorized cues and choreography from your long-term memory. You then bring them to your working memory to use them in real time. Sensory input from your arms and legs travels from your peripheral nerves to your spinal cord, through the brainstem and into the brain, to be interpreted so you know where you are in space. You respond to that information with motor plans from the pre-frontal lobes to the motor cortex, then back down through the spinal cord and peripheral nerves to the muscles of your arms and legs.
Along the way, your cerebellum, tucked behind the back of your brain, is modifying information and providing coordination and balance so you don’t overshoot or undershoot your targets. While all of these things are going on, your brain is also handling the systems that keep your body temperature adjusted (allowing you to sweat the right amount at the right time), your heart pumping and your lungs expanding just enough and not too much.
And all of this is just the basic mechanics! Now layer on the emotional modulation and higher level thinking that is occurring simultaneously. Are you nervous at the start of class? Are you worried about exposing a weakness, being liked, or doing the best job? Did you just take Advanced Training, thinking more about a certain action or habit? Are you going to try out something new that is a little scary? Well, say hello to the more elemental parts of your brain, the ones that modulate fear, anxiety, pleasure, and reward. They are working overtime.
So when I see class participants struggling to keep up, or feeling awkward as they try to kick, hit, or dance their way through BODYCOMBAT and BODYJAM – I see those as successes! Their brains are receiving and sending countless signals, and they are continually refining their motor output to get their workout.
When I see my fellow Instructors feeling down about not giving the peak performance they are working toward, I want to reach out and shake them and say – look at all that is going right! Your brain and your body are beautiful, incredible things, and for every one thing you think could be better, there are thousands of things you are taking for granted that are working just fine.
Keep improving. Keep training. But at the same time, know that your body and your brain are pretty incredible right now.
Farrah N. Daly MD MBA is a Neurologist, Palliative Medicine Specialist, and hospice medical director based in Virginia, USA. She teaches BODYCOMBAT and BODYJAM.