The key to your physical fitness and health may be all in your head. Literally.

That’s the belief of a growing number of health professionals, alternative and mainstream, in Boulder County and beyond.

They call it “neuroplasticity,” or the brain’s ability to adapt to challenges and rewire itself to form new neural pathways. This runs counter to the old beliefs that the brain couldn’t really adapt much after a certain age. You know the saying, “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Yes, you can lose neural pathways due to lack of use or injury, experts say, but that doesn’t mean that connection is gone forever.

The idea of rewiring the brain itself is not completely new — people began tinkering with it in the ’80s, and there’s plenty of research out there about its relationship with dementia and Alzheimer’s — but its significance in the health and fitness field is newer. And a “huge, exploding field right now,” says Laura Olinger, of Boulder

Neuroplasticity gives us clues “as to what we can do to remain healthier, retain our functionality and recover from injury and illness,” Olinger says.

Coaches and professional athletes have long understood the mind-body connection. Brain training is the basis of building “muscle memory.” But in the past few years, these ideas are becoming more accessible and prominent in mainstream yoga studios and personal training sessions.

Olinger runs a fitness program in Boulder called Ageless Grace that is built on the concepts of neuroplasticity. She teaches it in a Boulder dance studio.

She says there are many different ways to help rewire the brain, and Ageless Grace is just one of them. Others practice Neurosculpting, in conjunction with yoga or personal training, or the Franklin Method (functional anatomy training with applied imagery) to enhance traditional Pilates.

Move more — for your brain

“You could say, ‘As we get older, all these things change,'” Olinger says. “Or you could say, ‘As we stop moving vigorously with explorative ideas and playing, those things change.'”

Maybe our age is not as much the issue as our movement, she says.

Think about how children wiggle seemingly nonstop. The move in all planes of motion, not just linearly. They also learn the quickest, and they are constantly building new neural pathways. Olinger believes the two are related.

In fact, some say the body and the mind are more interconnected than many people realize, and can greatly inform the other. Our body can build new neural pathways in the brain through new experiences and movements — and conscious visualization and attention to brain responses can also change the body, some say.

“Concentration is the key of any good exercise program,” she says. “If we take the time to focus on a new image and we feel motivated because we learned just enough anatomy to motivate us, suddenly you’re feeling your body.”

She is trained in the Franklin Method, or “practical neuroplasticity.” It teaches students how to use the brain to improve the body’s function. She uses visualization, physical objects and even basic anatomy lessons to help students understand how the body works.

“Research has shown when you give people imagery, you may notice that immediately you get this experience of, ‘Oh my gosh, my back feels lighter, broader, it’s easier to breathe.’ That’s because of the brain. The nervous system responds extremely quickly to a new idea,” Guyton says.

Lisa Wimberger knows firsthand how powerfully the brain can affect the body. She says she was able to stop her seizure disorder with no medication, through rigorous brain training.

“Theoretically, it shouldn’t be controllable,” she says. “When I got my diagnosis, I was told they were stress- and fear-induced seizures. I had been meditating since I was 12. I thought, ‘How much stress and fear could I have? I must be doing something wrong. … I must be missing something. What I was missing was neuroscience.”

Wimberger says she wanted to make her meditation more strategic, but to do that, she had to learn more about the brain. So she studied and played around with practices, until she found a way to identify her “halo,” or the one-second-long sensation she felt immediately before having a seizure. She then began visualizing that experience, while consciously changing her physical response to it — “like I was rehearsing for a play,” she says. After a year of practice, her seizures stopped. It’s been more than a decade.

“You gain a subtle navigation of the body’s performance levels through this kind of awareness,” she says.

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