Activities such as doing basic math, remembering names, writing poetry and learning a new language are classified as “higher-order” cognition and result in positive effects in the brain. Learning a new sport is no different. Especially in midlife where most people don’t bother to learn new things, taking on the challenge of learning a new skill can significantly increase the number of new brain cells in parts of the brain that are integral to memory and thinking.
However, highly underrated is the impact of paying attention to our motor cortex, the one which controls how well we move. Most people admire those who have great motor skills such as athletes, but never make the effort to hone their own skills in adulthood. By learning a new sport, we can expand our motor cortex and increase the volume of gray matter in parts of the brain related to movement control.
A study utilizing mice in 2014 found that mice who were introduced to a complicated new type of running wheel in which they had to learn a new type of step saw significant changes in their brains. The new skill increased the myelination of neurons in their motor cortexes so that messages between neurons could be processed more quickly and smoothly.
It was once widely believed that myelination in the brain occurs exclusively during infancy and childhood and comes to a screeching halt in adulthood. However, with these new findings it is evident that you can revamp the myelination of the brain in adulthood simply by attempting to learn a new sport or physical activity.
Besides the astounding physical effects of learning a new sport, you get amazing psychological benefits as well! Simply the fact of watching your body continue to respond and learn a new skill at an old age is greatly satisfying to many.