Senior Fitness

Neuroplasticity and Exercise: We Are Wired to Fire

Sam Arnold
Sam Arnold
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At our core, humans are integrated neuromuscular movers, in that the nervous and muscular systems must work together to drive movement. It is essential to note that the brain and individual structures, systems, and pathways presented therein directly impact our success as adults.

Enter the all-important topic of neuroplasticity.

No discussion of movements and the brain-muscle connection is complete without the idea of neuroplasticity. 

To highlight the importance of this brain-muscle connection and the plastic nature of the brain, let's explore how various age groups can benefit from a brain-driven approach to correcting faulty movement patterns.

If you are a corrective exercise specialist, or have experience with neuromuscular stretching, knowing this topic can add a lot of value for your clients. 

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the capacity of nerve cells to adapt to different circumstances. Nerve cells respond to stimulation by generating new synapses, and they respond to deprivation and excess stress by weakening neuronal connections (Neuroplasticity, n.d.). This adaptation is essential to maximize the success of athletes and overall quality of life.

When it comes to novel movements, imagine the neuromuscular system being like an untouched forest. The first time you try the movement will be difficult, like the first-time hiking through the forest's thick brush. There is a cascade of action potentials being sent from the cerebellum down your spinal cord and out to a muscle fiber resulting in muscular contraction.

At first, the signals may not lead to coordinated action just as you may not make it through the dense forest the first time. However, over time, the repeated sending of the signal begins to create a path to the desired movement. Just as you will wear down the forest, eventually, the skill becomes mastered and will require little if any thought to be completed with precision.

This is the equivalent of using concrete to pave a highway through the once dense forest. This highway is the nervous system's improvement of the fatty myelin sheath surrounding your nerves. Myelin acts as a conductor which speeds up the electrical impulses.

The movements we wire are the ones we fire.

Neuroplasticity for Children

In the earliest stages of motor development, humans are fearless explorers. From the time we learn to crawl, we experiment with movement – a lot. The brain is beginning to lay the neural network to build our motor patterns.

In these early months to years, children are learning to control their bodies. They are awkward, and they fall (and cry). But children are playful, and their utter lack of fear leads to persistence and eventual success.

These strengths allow kids to encounter many scenarios and perform a wide variety of movements. At the same time, they are preparing their brains and bodies for a lifetime of proper movement, and better health. Parents take note! Positive reinforcement and encouragement for playful movement need to be prioritized early and often.

Research reviewed: early skill development for children

A 2015 review, which assessed activity in pre-adolescent children, highlighted the importance of the type, not the amount, of activity, and established the importance of early skill development, socialization, and enjoyment of exercise (Myer et al., 2015). Further, rapid motor-skill development improves our ability to move well and increases one's chances of being a successful athlete.

As we grow, the musculoskeletal and neural systems develop steadily, but not necessarily simultaneously. Unfortunately, for the long-limbed 13-year-old basketball player who just hit a 3-inch growth spurt, he may experience a set-back in his technical development while his nervous system catches up the musculoskeletal system.

Fortunately, this awkward time is only temporary until the synapses connect further. Further, Russel et al. (2017) suggested that such connections in athletes lead to better muscle functioning later in life, albeit with worse joints (Russell et al., 2017).

Neuroplasticity for Older adults

Finally, neuroplasticity should be a priority when it comes to training in advanced ages (and perhaps for those 20-something hot-shots too). Addressing movement habits may also mitigate cognitive and motor decline associated with advanced aging and address common issues such as balance, spatial awareness, implement tracking, and osteoporosis (Smolarek et al., 2016).

Exercise has shown to prevent and delay cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease by enhancing cerebrovascular function, hippocampal volumes, and neuroplasticity (Bhide & Choi, 2019).

Drills to increase cognitive health

Some simple ways to improve cognitive health include proprioceptive, auditory, and visual reaction drills.

One such exercise is a single-leg balance with a reach to 5 different colored cones by auditory (coach saying "red cone") or visual (coach pointing to the red cone) command. Another example is a single-leg ball toss, but the fitness professional calls out which hand the client can use. Or, try the same drill with one eye closed.

Reaction focused proprioceptive exercises can have amazing crossover to real life. The best examples of these are "bump and balance" or "warding" drills where the athlete must maintain their planned movement while adjusting to external forces. Think of marching forward in a straight line while you are unpredictably pushed or pulled laterally.

dance-based movements: Neuroplasticity research

Any way to bring unpredictability and reaction to training will challenge your brain's pathways and stimulate the growth of new pathways. Be creative in playing with the variables at hand, such as planes of motion, planned vs. unplanned movement (i.e., predictability), and proprioceptive difficulty. Bhide & Choi (2019) concluded that dance-based exercise was one of the best non-pharmacological treatments for individuals with Alzheimer's disease.

It stands to reason that the benefits of memorizing steps, balancing, and rotational movements in dance translate to healthy individuals as well. In the same way, boxing has been shown to improve coordination for individuals with Parkinson's Disease (Humphrey et al., 2019).

Concluding thoughts

Getting enough exercise is undoubtedly vital to healthy living. But what type of activity we do may be just as important. When it comes to living a high-quality life, a variety of movement early, often, and throughout life can make all the difference.

We are most certainly creatures of habit, and, in an effort for efficiency, we often develop poor ones. The brain is designed to reinforce thoughts and movements. So, in the short term, perhaps during that first marathon, the brain gives a positive dopamine hit while simultaneously releasing beta-endorphin throughout the race to increase the tolerance for pain (Lovallo, 2016).

These beautiful neurotransmitters allow for the performance of all kinds of amazing feats. However, in the presence of consistent faulty movement patterns or significant stress to tissues, the release of neurotransmitters may be reduced, or simply lose effectiveness.

Resources on cognitive health and exercise

If you are interested in learning more about the subject, we have a wide range of content that on cognitive fitness and the myriad mental benefits that exercise can bring to the table - starting with the video below.

Be sure to check out this blog on Boosting Brain Fitness - as well as 5 Tips for a Fit and Healthy Brain.


Bhide, R., & Choi, S.-M. (2019). A dance-based exercise training will be better remedy for individuals with Alzheimer's Disease? Research in Dance and Physical Education3(2), 63–69.

Humphrey, C., Howell, D., & Custer, M. (2019). Perceptions of the impact of noncontact boxing on social and community engagement for individuals with Parkinson's Disease (PD). American Journal of Occupational Therapy73(4_Supplement_1).

Lovallo, W. R. (2016). Stress and health: Biological and psychological interactions.

Myer, G. D., Faigenbaum, A. D., Edwards, N. M., Clark, J. F., Best, T. M., & Sallis, R. E. (2015). Sixty minutes of what? A developing brain perspective for activating children with an integrative exercise approach. British Journal of Sports Medicine49(23), 1510–1516.

Neuroplasticity. (n.d.).

Russell, H. C., Tracey, J., Wiese-Bjornstal, D. M., & Canzi, E. (2017). Physical activity in former competitive athletes: The physical and psychological impact of musculoskeletal injury. Quest70(3), 304–320.

Smolarek, A., Ferreira, L. H., Mascarenhas, L. P., Mcanulty, S. R., Varela, K., Dangui, M., … Souza-Junior, T. (2016). The effects of strength training on cognitive performance in elderly women. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 749.

The Author

Sam Arnold

Sam Arnold

Sam Arnold, PES, CSCS, CSPS, CSC, has been in the healthcare, fitness, and sports performance fields for over 12 years. While studying Exercise Science at the University of Pittsburgh, he gained early exposure in physical and cardiac rehab settings as well as pediatric and adult weight management research facilities. Since 2015, Sam has been co-owner and Training Development Director at SHAPE Training in Pittsburgh, PA. In May 2021, he will obtain his Masters of Science from the California University of PA in Performance Enhancement & Injury Prevention as well as Sport Psychology. You can find more about Sam and his work via IG: sam_shapes_training


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