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BJJ for a Healthy Brain
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BJJ for a Healthy Brain

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One of the unique things about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the way it combines so many healthy actions into one activity. 

The aerobic virtues of Jiu Jitsu become obvious to anyone who tries to make it through a five minute roll for the first time.  But Jiu Jitsu also offers a fair amount of strength training, as well.  

Certainly, the gentle art is more about using guile and technique to gain an advantage.  But there is still an unmistakable element of resistance training involved when you are rolling against a resisting opponent.

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Add to all of that the fact that Jiu Jitsu is a mentally challenging exercise, too.

When taken together, aerobic training, resistance training, and mental training of Jiu Jitsu suggest that it is an exceptional tool for keeping your brain vital and healthy.

The sad fact is that our brains begin to show their age as we advance into our 40s and 50s.  It’s not just in our imaginations; our memory becomes a bit more sketchy as we get up there in years.

Fortunately, as our population advances in years, researchers have begun to seek out ways of staving off the effects of age on our brains.

Mental Benefits

One finding shows that a mentally-active brain survives the wear and tear of the years better than a brain that is less active.  This means that we have some control over our mental decline. Challenging ourselves with new mental obstacles can keep the neurons firing and reproducing.

This research has shown, however, that it takes more than just solving the daily crossword or sudoku puzzle to keep a brain healthy.  It takes genuine difficulty. In fact, struggle is necessary.

Now, most of us aren’t looking to add more struggle in our lives.  It’s unpleasant. Except for Jiu Jitsu. Here, we have a mentally-challenging activity (there’s always more to learn) that involves real struggle.  But, in this rare case, the struggle is actually fun!

Granted, there haven’t been any studies that focus specifically upon Jiu Jitsu’s benefits for the brain, but it certainly seems to fit the mental requirement.

Aerobic Benefits

But Jiu Jitsu’s potential benefits don’t end there.  Another batch of research has shown that aerobic exercise also helps fight off the effects of age on our brains.  It seems that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain.  

“In these studies, which have involved people and animals, aerobic exercise generally increases the number of new neurons created in the brain’s memory center and also reduces inflammation.  Unchecked, inflammation in the brain may contribute to the development of dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions.”*

So, when open mat has you huffing and puffing, keep in mind that it’s doing wonders not only for your body but for your brain.  

Resistance-Training Benefits

The most recent addition to this good news about brains has to do with resistance training and its potential to help keep your mind young.

For a long time, the neurological benefits of resistance training have been a mystery.  However, a new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology has shown that, in rats, resistance training has a clear and positive effect on neurological health.

You can read the article below for an explanation of how researchers convinced rats to pump iron, but the results correlate with improved brain health.

The researchers injected rats with a chemical that induces inflammation in the brain and results in symptoms similar to the early stages of dementia.

Half of these rats were then assigned to their version of the weight room, where their resistance training started and where their levels of resistance were increased as they gained muscle mass.

After five weeks, the rats were tested in a maze.  And the results? “With a little practice [. . .] the weight-trained animals, despite their induced cognitive impairments, caught up to and in some cases surpassed the speed and accuracy of” rats that were not subjected to cognitive impairment.*

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Taylor Kelty, the lead researcher on this study, sums up their conclusions: “The weight training had ‘effectively restored’ their ability to think.”*

Looking at the brain chemistry of these muscle-bound rats, they found that their little brains were filled with “enzymes and genetic markers that are known to help kick-start the creation and survival of new neurons, while also increasing plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to remodel itself.”*

Granted, we need to contain our enthusiasm about this study since it focuses only on rats and not on humans, but there is room for hope.  And, certainly, all of this is exciting news for middle-aged grapplers because it shows yet another way that Jiu Jitsu can lead to a long and healthy life.  

Not only does Jiu Jitsu provide the type of mental struggle that keeps the brain supple and healthy, but it's aerobic and strength training demands are also good not only for our bodies but for our brains.

Taking all of this news into account, it may not be such a surprise that there are so many grandmasters in the gentle art sporting red belts.

Along with their determination, the mental, aerobic, and strength-training effects of Jiu Jitsu itself are helping them reach those elite levels.

For a complete discussion of the research on strength-training and brain health—including an explanation of how to make rats pump iron—see the link below:

*https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/well/move/how-weight-training-changes-the-brain.html

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