One hard thing

Dr André and I recently hiked in a true wilderness area: the very end of the Outeniqua mountains where trails haven’t been fully developed yet. It is rugged, steep and with verdant fynbos thickets requiring what can only be described as bundu-bashing. The elevation gain was almost 2 000’ and it took around 7 hours to complete the 9.5 km clambering, climbing hike.

He is 68 years old and tackled the mountain like a klipspringer, and even when the going got tough he didn’t quit. He just paused, caught his breath and admired the view.

It reminded me of the way he recently hiked the rugged Otter and stuck to his water-fasting day each time we hiked the epic Fish River.

What I used to think of as stubbornness, I now define as tenacity, perseverance, grit. This has defined much of how he tackles life. This also explains his physical vitality and mental acuity so admired by others.

Turns out being obstinate can be very good for us.

Our brains consist of about 60% white matter and around 40% gray matter. White matter helps various areas of the brain to communicate with each other, but it is the gray matter which is where all the processing happens. Gray matter is responsible for thinking, reasoning, sensation, perception, voluntary movement, learning, speech and cognition.

As we get older, the amount of gray matter typically reduces. So although various parts of our brain still chat, they have less to talk about and then slowly start to go silent.

However, consistently doing hard things we are interested in, protects or even increases gray matter.

This is especially true for the gray matter of a fascinating part of your brain called the anterior midcingulate cortex. Here our brain connects and coordinates physical, cognitive and emotional functions in an intricate way. Its health is essential for our working memories, problem solving abilities, emotional regulation, social interactions, proprioception, physical balance and coordination.

For instance, when you consistently work at learning a new language, do regular music lessons, attend challenging weekly art classes, you not only grow your mental skills for these activities, your physical coordination and your emotional regulation improves as well.

If you persist at a challenging physical activity: ballroom dancing lessons, personal training sessions, advanced yoga classes, training for an ultra-marathon, taking up tennis, you not only improve your physical strength and coordination, but your cognitive and affective health as well.

Even sticking to an intermittent fasting schedule is a way to improve the size and function of the anterior midcingulate cortex.

The trick is to do something which does not come naturally for you, but something you really would like to do, and then persevere.

Then, when you master it, find a new hard thing.

This sounds easy but can be daunting. As adults we often fear failure. If this holds you back, it is important to redefine failure. As Thomas Edison famously said: “I didn’t fail, I just found 10 000 ways that won’t work.”

When you do hard things and stick to it, no matter how bad you are at it you are already succeeding. Succeeding in growing and supporting a healthy, happy brain and body.

Intrigued by therapeutic fasting? Read about the process.

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