Ever heard the saying, “It takes 21 days to break or form a habit”? While the “21-day rule” has technically been dethroned (studies show it actually takes an average of 66 days), the concept is scientifically true. Consistent and positive changes in behavior have been shown to rewire and reshape the brain, resulting in long-term and lasting benefits. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to physically change in response to certain actions and behaviors. Neurons are the driving force behind all of the brain’s activity. By thoughtfully and intentionally changing your actions, you trigger your brain cells to react, strengthening and shaping the connections between neurons and ultimately improving your well-being.
So How Does It Work?
Neuroplastic change happens at the chemical, structural, and functional levels of the brain, with each level communicating with one another.
The most basic type of change happens at the chemical level when you first begin to alter a particular behavior or learn something new. Take your fitness routine – if one day you switch up your normal yoga session for a set of burpees, you will spark a chemical change in the brain that results in an increase in neurotransmitters like serotonin (aka the happy hormone). This gives your brain both a feel-good boost and a workout as it has to brush up on its motor skills in order to make those burpees happen. But this change only scratched the surface. If you never try that body-burning exercise again, its impact on your brain (and the rest of your body) won’t stick.
Long-term changes require more time, effort, and consistency to cement. This is how new habits are formed – by structurally altering your brain. Take those burpees you were trying out. If after that first session you decide to incorporate a set or two into your monthly routine, your brain will begin to learn what to do in a more permanent way, forming new neurons or changing the connections between existing neurons so that you are better able to perform this activity.
If you take your burpee journey one step further and incorporate them into your daily routine, that’s when functional change occurs. Consistent action alters the entire brain network, which makes new connections to different parts of your brain and strengthens connections that already exist. Your burpees will become second nature and the benefits you get from them will go well beyond a six-pack. Functional change in your brain can also result in improved memory, a healthier nervous system, and muscle regeneration and strength.
Although burpees (or any other form of fitness) aren’t the only way to spark brain change, studies show aerobic exercise is one of most effective ways to promote neuroplasticity.
So, the more you exercise your brain – the more you practice the behaviors that you want to become permanent habits – the stronger and more connected it (and the rest of your body) becomes. But there’s one key to unlocking the power of neuroplasticity: the actions you take have to be rewarding.
Our brains may get all the credit for our intelligence, but they, too, are reward-motivated. Neuroplastic change requires that your brain feels you are being rewarded in some way.
How to Practice Neuroplasticity.
Five things are required to change your brain through your actions:
Challenge: Whether you take on something physical — going on a tough hike, mastering a yoga pose, or starting a new workout class — or mental, like learning a new language or how to cook, the behavior should be new and challenging. This is what sparks cognitive change.
Intention: The core of neuroplasticity is reward. The action you take should be rewarding to you and undertaken with the set intention of bettering yourself in some way.
Attention: In order for neuroplasticity to occur, you need to give the new task adequate attention. Have a plan, schedule it in your calendar, and make it a priority.
Repetition: As they say, change doesn’t happen in a day. One new workout session is not enough to make lasting change, so keep going, stick with your new behavior, and notice the changes that happen to your body and your mindset.
Time: Be patient and be consistent.