How dancing can help keep your brain young

Tap your feet to the beat to stay younger for longer.
(pic copyright: Nataliya Gvozdeva)

Any form of exercise can help stop the brain declining with age. Yet a new study shows that dancing beats other forms of fitness activities for its impact on slowing down the process of brain ageing. Varying the kind of dancing you do – especially if learning new, complicated routines – can enhance that impact.

The research, published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Journal, asked two groups of elderly volunteers (average age 68) to engage in dancing or in endurance and flexibility training over a period of 18 months. The aim was to observe how these activities would affect the area of the brain that declines with age – the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory, learning and balance, and can be affected by dementia. The endurance training volunteers repeated the same exercises each week, while the dancers had a new routine to learn.

Lead author of the study Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, based at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, said that the dancers were given routines from dance genres such as Jazz, Latin and Line dancing, and they had to remember their routines without being prompted or helped by their teachers. This extra challenge – remembering, not just working out – showed a greater degree of improvement in balance among the dancers than among the volunteers on fitness programme.

The researchers concluded: “Only the dancers achieved a significant increase in the balance composite score. Hence, dancing constitutes a promising candidate in counteracting the age-related decline in physical and mental abilities.” Not to mention the mood-boosting qualities of being swept across a dance floor in tune with your favourite beat.

How creativity today can boost wellbeing tomorrow

Creative pursuits such as knitting can boost your emotional wellbeing. (Copyright: Oleksii Rashevskyi)

Indulge in creative activities today, and you could well feel more joy, enthusiasm and uplift tomorrow. That’s according to research into the relationship between day-to-day creativity and wellbeing by New Zealand’s University of Utago.

Psychology researchers analysed the daily diaries of 658 university students, where they logged their experiences and emotional states over 13 days.

Patterns emerged showing that participants felt more enthusiastic and had higher “flourishing” in the days after they had been creative. Flourishing is a concept that determines overall wellbeing, happiness and potential for growth.

Lead researcher Dr Tamlin Conner said previous research had focused on how emotions can hamper or support creative activity. However, in this new study, rather than positive feelings predicting next-day creative activity, it was actually previous day’s creative activity that predicted the next day’s positive feelings and wellbeing.

Top creative activities for wellbeing include:

  • Songwriting.
  • Creative writing (poetry, short fiction).
  • Knitting and crochet.
  • Making new recipes.
  • Painting, drawing, and sketching.
  • Graphic and digital design.
  • Musical performance.

Dr Conner concluded: “This finding suggests a particular kind of upward spiral for wellbeing and creativity – engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in wellbeing the next day, and this increased wellbeing is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day. Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning.”

Time to get those knitting needles out…

How writing a poem can make you feel better

davanti counselling rhyme and resilience

Writing down your emotions can be a route to healing. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/surasakiStock)

Today is World Poetry Day, set up by UNESCO to “recognise the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind”. You don’t have to be a poet to write a poem. You can just sit down and let fragments of thought and feeling tumble onto the page. Writing a poem is a unique way of connecting to feeling, and can boost your wellbeing. Research has shown that the act of writing about emotional experiences has physiological and psychological benefits. Here’s how writing a poem can help you feel better:

  • Giving emotions to the page can release you from them. The page can hold the feeling so you don’t have to.
  • The structure and discipline of poetry can offer containment for overwhelming emotions.
  • Putting your feelings onto paper or screen is like having your own personal therapist whenever you need to be heard and understood.
  • Writing about your experience can help make meaning from chaos.
  • Writing can help you understand and reconstruct the part of you that’s been hurt, shamed, stressed or depressed.
  • A metaphor can work with difficult feelings without re-traumatising.
  • If you feel stuck, write about your stuckness to release the energy.
  • Writing things down helps you dis-identify from your emotions: you can HAVE emotions but don’t need to BE them.
  • Having a piece of writing to look back on reminds you of the distance you’ve travelled between now and when the pain was experienced.

Happy World Poetry Day!

Related articles:

How to express your true feelings in words on World Poetry Day

How to use a poem to contain overwhelming emotions

Are you ready to transform “winter’s dreams into summer’s magic”?

davanti counselling st patricks day

What can the festival of ‘green’ inspire you to achieve as winter disappears? (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Rattikankeawpun)

One of the prettiest quotes for St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, is this one attributed to Adrienne Cook: “St. Patrick’s Day is an enchanted time – a day to begin transforming winter’s dreams into summer’s magic.”

Stepping beyond the leprechauns, four-leaved clovers and jaunty hats that have come to characterise St Patrick’s Day, I’m wondering whether the “wearing of the green” could have more symbolic significance, given that winter is about to tip into spring? Here’s my metaphorical take on the day:

Snakes: St Patrick was legendarily attributed to have chased all the snakes away from Ireland (though an impossibility, reportedly, that there were any snakes, given the climate), and yet the timing of the feast day could represent an opportunity to chase away the snakes from your life. What is lurking in your life, sliding insidiously and hissing at your efforts? Could it be time to shed an old skin and allow a new, truer you to emerge?

Green: Symbol of rebirth, transformation, growth. Taken metaphorically, wearing green can help you focus on your heart’s desire. You can work on cutting away the weeds that are strangling your roots and preventing your potential from coming to bloom. Focus on green to sow the seeds of hope and harmony in your life.

Luck: The four-leaved clover may be a one-in-a-10,000 find, and yet some of us still hold out hope that we will find that rarity – while ignoring what we have around us. What are the gifts staring you in the face that you may not be appreciating? What are you searching, yearning for in the future that may leave you depleted in the present? Stay in the now and feel gratitude for what you have.

And those dreams into magic? It’s the time of year when New Year’s Resolutions may be a faded, embarrassed promise, and the clocks going forward represent renewed chances and more daylight to achieve something. If the timing of St Patrick’s Day really does represent an “enchanted time”, then take today as an opportunity to kick-start something you’ve been dreaming about for some time. Have you been hibernating in thought during darker hours? Promising yourself that you’ll shake yourself out of something? Today could be the time to grasp the energy of green and bring some wakefulness into your own dreams.

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

How reading for pleasure promotes wellbeing

World Book Day

World Book Day 2016: celebrating everything good about reading

If you like reading a good book for pleasure then you’ll know all about the joy and wellbeing that brings – as celebrated by World Book Day every year. Now research is backing up the benefits of reading for pleasure, and promoting the power of books to inspire, calm us down, and empower us to make positive changes in our lives.

The Reading Agency has recently produced two studies showing the “remarkable and untold benefits of reading on our everyday lives”. The first study, Galaxy Quick Reads: The Untold Power of the Book, produced in partnership with Josie Billington at the University of Liverpool, shows that reading for pleasure can make us more empathic and encourage us to change our lives for the better. Half of the UK adults in the study said that reading could help make them more sympathetic to other people’s situations. Other results showing heightened wellbeing are:

  • 38% of people choose reading as their ultimate stress remedy.
  • 35% reach for a book for comfort when feeling down (compared with 31% who pour themselves a glass of wine, and 10% who run themselves a bath).
  • 41% say reading is a better cure for their worries than a night out with friends.
  • 27% feel empowered to make major life changes, such as end a bad relationship or search for a new job.
  • 20% feel more motivated to look after their health after reading a good book.
  • 17% say books inspired them to stay calm during a disagreement (compared with 5% of people who never read).

Interestingly, the research showed that readers who prefer characters who demonstrated that it’s OK to be flawed – and drew comfort from that. So, 23% prefer to read about someone who is makes mistakes, or someone who is funny (20%), more than a character who is brave (19%), loyal (17%), or kind (11%). However, it was more than a third (35%) of respondents who claimed they would love to read more but were distracted by their phones or the TV.

The second study, The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, in conjunction with BOP Consulting, and funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation shows more evidence that reading for pleasure can reduce symptoms of depression, lower the risk of dementia, improve relationships, and generally boost wellbeing.

Commenting on the findings, author and president of the Society of Authors, Phillip Pullman, said: “I agree whole-heartedly with what this report is saying about the importance of reading for pleasure. The writer Samuel Johnson apparently didn’t say this, but someone did, and it remains true: ‘The true aim of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it’.”

How to cope with a day of feeling discombobulated

Too much going on – and not achieving anything –  can leave you feeling discombobulated (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/jesadaphorn)

Too much going on – and not achieving anything – can leave you feeling discombobulated (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/jesadaphorn)

Had one of those days when you felt frustrated, blocked, irritated, a little emotional, and generally out of sorts? But not quite sure what was underneath it all? A day when you were pulled in multiple directions, without knowing which way to turn?

You weren’t pressured enough to call it stress, and your irritation wasn’t strong enough to be classed as anger. You weren’t on on top of your game, and you’d lost contact with your usual brilliance. You were a little impatient, and you may have put it down to tiredness. Or maybe something else entirely. You might be feeling feeling confused and perplexed as to why carefully laid plans just weren’t working out. Someone you were relying on let you down unexpectedly. Or you felt you had to compromise your authenticity in a situation that has now left you wondering why.

A possible (though multi-syllabic) way to put a name on what you’re feeling is to call it ‘discombobulated’. It’s a word that sums up the kind of generalised anxiety that you can’t put your finger on, but you know that something isn’t quite right. Feeling discombobulated can be a low-level but disconcerting fear of something not working out the way you’d like it to, and you may not have control of the outcome.

Here’s what I recommend for coping with a day of feeling discombobulated: (more…)

Why reading a good book is good for you and your relationships

Reading a good book for pleasure, not because you have to, can improve your empathy with others (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/imagery majestic)

Reading a good book for pleasure, not because you have to, can improve your empathy with others (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/imagery majestic)

Pick up a good book, lose yourself in its story, its history, its education, and you’ll feel the benefits of increased empathy for others, a boost to your relationships, and an enhanced sense of wellbeing. At least, that’s the results of a study from The Reading Agency, which – by living up to its name and reason for being – is promoting the benefits of reading. They would say that, wouldn’t they? But look beyond the headlines and the benefits of reading for pleasure aren’t just lofty claims to support a promotional message. The benefits have been identified by studying more than 50 studies and reports over the last 10 years, and across a range of age and cultural groups.

For children the benefits of reading touch on social skills. For adults, it can help improve relationships and confidence levels. For parents, it helps them to communicate better with their kids. And for older adults, reading for pleasure can help reduce symptoms of depression and dementia. Importantly, engaging in a book can help you engage more fully in other relationships, and become more empathic towards the ways other people live their lives.

The key point, however, is not to rock up and read a book because you have to, out of endurance. It’s about truly enjoying the pleasure of reading. Only then can you have have the opportunity to reap the benefits identified by the study.

I’ve enthused about this topic before, in my post on Why reading a good book can be therapeutic. I think you can’t beat reading a good book where you can lose yourself in time and space, and enter into a new world, for helping you relax, de-stress, and gain fresh perspective on the world you inhabit.

However, I’ll leave the last word on this topic to an expert. Author Phillip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors, which is involved in this project, said: “I agree wholeheartedly with what this report is saying about the importance of reading for pleasure. When I write a story I hope to beguile, to enchant, to bewitch, to perform an act of magic on and with my readers’ imaginations. [This quote] remains true: ‘The true aim of writing is to enable to reader to better able to enjoy life, or better to endure it.'”