No April fooling: skiing improves your mind |

No April fooling: skiing improves your mind

Elizabeth Eber
Daily file photoElizabeth Eber

Just when you thought that too much skiing was rendering you mindless, some non-ski-bum researchers at the not-so-mountainous University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have come to the rescue. Their study of people over age 55 has shown that in addition to the known benefits of exercise, aerobic fitness improves your mind. (Source – Colcombe, S.J., A.F. Kramer, et al. In press. Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)It does this by increasing the brain’s gray and white matter, both of which shrink as a function of aging, starting at age 30. And this decrease in gray and white matter is associated with reduced brain functioning.However, exercise was shown to reverse the shrinking process in the brain’s frontal, temporal and parietal lobes. These are the areas involved with such functions as abstract reasoning, speaking, fine motor control, hearing, memory, emotion and processing sensory information.

In addition to increasing their brain matter, as revealed by brain scans, subjects in the study who had participated in a six-month aerobic conditioning program performed better on attention tasks than subjects who were not aerobically fit.According to Arthur F. Kramer, a neuroscientist and one of the co-authors of the study, “Even moderate cardiovascular activity of the sort that is within reach of most healthy older adults results in improved neural functioning…”No one disputes that skiing is good for the soul as well as the body. But, could it really also be good for the mind?It depends on how aerobically you ski. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, aerobic benefit is achieved by maintaining an elevated heart rate for 20-60 continuous minutes, three to five days per week.If you are fond of skiing in short spurts – a few turns followed by a rest/”talking” stop – you are probably not contributing to your aerobic fitness, because you are only keeping your heart rate elevated for a few minutes at a time.And then, there is all that time spent sitting on the lift–an activity that probably best conditions your mind for sitting on your couch.

However, if you are a bit more driven about your skiing, in spite of possibly losing some friends, you will have a better chance of improving your mind.Quite simply, on every run, whether you start out skiing alone or with companions, just plain don’t stop.At least some of Vail’s terrain, such as the long, un-groomed runs in the Back Bowls, or a non-stop PPL (Prima, Pronto and Log Chute), are good for 20 minutes top-to-bottom, if you don’t ski them too fast. Do enough of those in a day, and there you have it: a better brain.And while you’re at it, you might even improve your skiing. This is because, in order to ski non-stop on the more challenging runs, you have to maintain your balance and your terrain analysis skills for longer periods of time than you might be used to. Forcing yourself to do this tends to improve these skills.Skiing aerobically also prevents you from indulging in the bad habit of stopping to regain your balance rather than doing it through technique, or getting lazy about always keeping your eyes focused downhill.

Furthermore, in addition to strengthening your quads, non-stop skiing requires you to maintain a relaxed stance so you can rest your quads while you are skiing, otherwise you will never make it from top to bottom on those long, steep runs. The stronger you are and the more relaxed your stance, the more naturally and better you can ski.So maybe we all should ski even more?Think about it. … That is, unless you are over age 55 and haven’t been skiing enough to be able to pay attention to this task.Elizabeth Eber is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Vail.Vail, Colorado

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