If you’re reading this, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be a professional athlete (no offense — it’s really just the odds), but that doesn’t mean you should give up on your athletic career. In fact, according to a recent post on the New York Times’ blog Well, you should actually be picking up some new sports, because it’s good for your brain.
The post summarizes a pair of studies (this one and that one), which demonstrate how learning a new skill like juggling or skateboarding increases your brain’s white matter and enhances your neural network through a process known as myelination. The axions in your brain cells are sheathed in myelin, which insulates the electrical impulses in your neurons and helps them move faster and travel farther. This, in turn, improves your reaction speed and makes your feet move quicker. Myelination is the process through which myelin sheaths are created, so learning a new sport increases your myelin sheathing, which is going to keep your brain sharp, help push cognitive decline off a bit, and probably make you a better dancer, too.
Neuroscientists used to think that myelination only happened in toddlers, but this research shows it happens in fathers (and mothers), too — but only when you’re learning something new. Dusting off the old pigskin and tossing it with your kid won’t do you any good if you played ball when you were younger. So, strap on some knee pads and a helmet (and elbow pads and wrist guards and, screw it, probably a mouth guard while you’re at it), and try chasing Junior around the skatepark, instead. Unless, of course, you’re Tony Hawk, in which case maybe try football for a change.