Respect the Brain (and Body) Like a Football Player
Recently I came across an article on line in the Boston Globe touting six ideas for keeping your brain strong, but the reality is that these tips are also good for overall health and wellness, because the brain is the headmaster of the body and the two are interdependent in terms of improving and maintaining health. As I read it, my mind recalled a privilege I’d had earlier this year of meeting and working with running back Rashad Jennings in the off season as he was waiting to be picked up during the free agency cycle.
Having worked with several professional and elite athletes as a MAT practitioner, there were several things that stood out about this strong young man with a vibrant smile and kind eyes -- in spite of his job description -- that wound up making an impression on me as I realized in our conversations that he instinctively knows how to treat his entire body/soul/spirit triad with respect and care. In my profession, I’ve found that the best way to help my clients achieve optimal health is to help them determine stressors which are creating barriers to that health, so that they are empowering their bodies to get and stay well. Whether its reaching new performance goals with an athlete or a helping a grandmother who wants to reduce the pain cycles of fibromyalgia so she can better enjoy visits from grandkids, finding the root causes of wellness issues is foundational to achieving true health.
While the six ideas proposed in the article are all aspects of healthy brains, having a healthy brain is interrelated with the health of our bodies, and the reverse is also true. There are symbiotic relationships throughout the body’s systems and everything is truly reliant on the other. I asked Rashad if I could share some of his solutions to maintaining a fit brain and healthy body. Here they are…
The brain likes a challenge, and the key is to find different kinds of novel stimuli to increase the sustainability and training of the areas of the brain involved in cognition, memory, problem solving and, depending on the type of stimulus, fine and/or gross motor skills. So what does a running back do to stimulate his brain?
“Ever since my rookie year, I’ve taken time in the off season to teach myself a new skill,” recalls Jennings. “One year I taught myself how to write with my left (non-dominant) hand. Another year I learned how to play the guitar, and another I learned a foreign language.” This type of brain activity helps keep the neural connections strong and vibrant. And we can learn something new at any stage, any age in life.
Rashad sees the importance of keeping his brain as well as his body in competition shape, and applies this principle effectively. So we moved on to talk about exercise.
As a professional athlete, it’s a given that Rashad dedicates a good portion of his days to resistance training, power, speed and agility training and more at some level year-round. But the effects of training can dissipate quickly if the off-season is characterized by off-exercise completely. Called the “active rest” phase of periodization mesocycles in the sports conditioning world, the off season should be reserved for casual, unstructured exercise that helps maintain key aspects of physical fitness: cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and muscular endurance.
“I enjoy staying active, in fact, I miss it when I’m not exercising,” Rashad quips with a small grin on his face. “I mix it up, with lower intensity weight training and I throw in spinning, kick boxing, group classes, I like it all. And it keeps me fresh and lean.” What was his last body fat measurement? He’s reported to maintain approximately 7-8 percent level, and that’s pretty much year round. How does he accomplish that? Exercise is one factor, but the other is most definitely diet.
I asked Rashad the type of eating regimen he uses, and the most interesting revelation is that this is his diet no matter where he is in the season. He doesn’t’ take the off season to east ice cream and chili cheese fries all day. He keeps himself in check every month of the year.
“I adopted a lower fat, gluten and casein free diet a few years ago. I actually study nutrition a bit so that I can stay on top of the latest news with regard to food. It takes a whole lot of calories to support my training and competition schedule, and when you think about it, the food choices we make are the most important ones because that’s what fuels everything we do. I choose healthy, natural fats and stay away from processed items. There’s a certain feeling of accomplishment when you’ve made your own stuff from scratch anyway.”
Cook from scratch, ditch processed and fatty foods, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, sounds like a plan we would all benefit from. But all this brain and body exercise and cooking and eating, when does he find time to rest?
Current research states that adults receiving fewer than 7-8 hours of restful sleep per night are more likely to gain weight, suffer depression and increase their risk of certain disease processes like cholesterol problems, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Is it hard for a pro like Jennings to get adequate rest? He says he gets a minimum of eight a night.
“It’s only a problem if you make it a problem,” he says. “I take care of myself, because it’s the only body I get for life. Partying and staying out late are not really my style. I’d rather wake up without an alarm, feeling rested, so that I can make the most out of my day.”
In addition, during camp and the season, Jennings sleeps in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. The concept behind the apparatus is that it compresses the oxygen closer to a liquid state so that the molecules are absorbed by the cells more quickly, which may enhance recovery after tough practices or games, and may even speed rehabilitation from injury.
Just when I thought to myself that somebody this busy and this healthy must lead a boring, isolated life outside of the football field, I asked about the next piece of the keep-your-brain-fresh pie, his social life.
Don’t all athletes maintain their social lives through outlets like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter? I mean, especially during the season, who has time for personal interaction? Rashad laughs as he sits back and shares the importance he places on personal interaction, not just virtual.
“Family and friends are so important to me, and if I can’t see them, then I’m picking up my phone to talk. Even hearing a real voice is so much better than any kind of virtual technology. It’s kind of sad how we don’t get face-to-face much anymore,” he says. “You can’t hug a tablet and get any emotional support there.”
While Rashad maintains active Twitter and Facebook accounts, he utilizes them to inspire and encourage those who read his posts. “God’s given me a platform in professional sports,” he adds. “I feel I owe it to him to be a positive role model in every aspect of my life."
So, if incorporating a mix of new cognitive skills, copious amounts of specific exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, getting proper rest, time with family and friends and managing a career that involves explosive strength, overcoming oncoming defenders, running fast and hard, and getting tackled sounds stressful, but for him, it doesn’t seem so . When I asked Rashad about how he manages stress, his answer was surprisingly simple.
“For me, the spiritual aspect of my life is what holds everything together. I know that I am who I am by the grace of God, and I keep that thought in the forefront all the time. As I mentioned, I have been given a platform in professional sports. I didn’t make it happen all by myself,” he says, and I recognize a gentle humility about this man that’s unmistakable, yet maybe uncommon to the profession.
“There’s good and bad that will come into your life, but what we do with it either helps us and works out for good or hinders us,” he says. “I believe God helps you find the good in every situation or turn it around to be good in the long run. And that creates peace in my heart.”
So there are several good lessons to be learned from this young athlete with regard to respecting the brain, the body and the soul. I think any of us could take just one of these areas, apply Rashad’s principles where we can, and lead a healthier, happier and prolonged life.
To read the full article from the Boston Globe, click here: