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Continuing Education: Benefits of Learning New Skills

Whether you’ve been doing CrossFit for two months or two years, you know that the first few months involve a vast amount of learning every time you walk into the gym. Between remembering the names of the movements and learning how to move your body in ways you probably never have before, it can be a bit overwhelming. But what happens after those first couple months of being schooled in CrossFit? Are we done learning and now just putting things into different combinations and trying to do them faster and heavier? Well, no, and it’s important that we don’t get stuck in this rut of thinking we’ve learned everything we need to when it comes to CrossFit. Learning new skills not only opens up new movements to incorporate into workouts, but the benefits go far beyond this, and even go far beyond the gym. Today we’ll explore how the process of continual learning benefit the brain, mind, and body, and make us more fit, even if it feels like we’re failing.

Long gone are the days when we thought that the brain was fully developed by our mid-twenties and could never change or grow after that. We call how the brain continues to change throughout our entire life “neuroplasticity,” and it’s an extremely relevant but often overlooked when it comes to exercise. We know that continuing to challenge the brain with things like puzzles keeps the brain functioning properly as we age. We also know that exercise physically benefits the brain, by increasing its blood flow and capillary density. CrossFit stands at a unique intersection of these two facts, by challenging both brain and body through the learning of new motor skills.

Related: Why Motor Control Makes You Stronger

To get a deeper look at what’s really going on when we learn new skills, let’s get in our heads for bit. The brain is made up of two different types of matter, grey and white. Grey matter contains the neurons or “brain cells”, while white matter consists of myelinated axons, or the branches of the brain cells that communicate with each other. Research has shown that performing new skills increases the volume of grey matter in the motor cortex of our brain, effectively increasing the number of brain cells we have, while performing skills that we have routinely done in the past doesn’t have this benefit. We have also seen that white matter integrity is improved through exercise, which means that our nervous system is able to  communicate more quickly. These findings mean that learning new exercises on a regular basis can keep us moving longer and keep our brain firing quickly longer, essentially acting as an anti-aging pill for the brain. Could it get any better? The answer is yes, because these benefits are seen at any age, so it doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 75, it’s never too late to learn new skills.

“These findings mean that learning new exercises on a regular basis can keep us moving longer and keep our brain firing quickly longer, essentially acting as an anti-aging pill for the brain.”

But if these benefits seem too good to pass up, why isn’t everyone doing this? Probably because it can be frustrating to learn new skills. We feel like we’re failing and that we’ll never learn it, so we settle for doing things we already know how to do. However, a slower rate of learning results in a greater neuroplastic change, meaning that the harder the skill and longer it takes to learn, the more benefit you get. To get past this holdup, we have to learn to drop our ego when we approach a new skill, and know that it will pay off in the long run.

Related: Simple Guide to Meditation

If you do find yourself stuck in a place where you haven’t learned a new skill in a while, I encourage you to take a different mindset when looking at future workouts, and instead of avoiding that one day that has a move that scares you or you’re still working on, make it a point to come that day. Get outside of your comfort zone and be okay with failing every once in a while. Feel free to make this one workout a week be a little lower intensity to allow you to slow down and really think about the way you’re moving. It might be frustrating in the moment when we can’t quite do something the way we want to, but a year or two or ten down the road, you’ll look back and be grateful that you put yourself in that difficult position of learning. Not only will you surprise yourself and be able to do cool new things, but you can take comfort in knowing that your brain will be better off in the long run too.

Related: What “Better Than Yesterday” Means to Me

–Jay Alexander

Coach/Trainer

jay@crossfitslipstream.com