The Inspiring Science of Fitness & the Brain

I think I’m in love with Dr. John J. Ratey. What’s not to love about this declaration:

What I aim to do here is to deliver in plain English the inspiring science connecting exercise and the brain and to demonstrate how it plays out in the lives of people.” p. 7, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

Amen!! Now that I’ve just outted myself as an ecstatic nerd, let me explain.

Lately I’ve been on a crusade to get more people “using the brains in their whole body.” This is a deeply personal crusade, as well as a professional one.

PE Classes That Teach Kids to Think!?

As an educator, I got especially excited about Ratey’s case study of a revolutionary approach to PE classes. Imagine–  heart rate monitors replacing dodge ball:

The essence of physical education in Naperville 203 is teaching fitness instead of sports.  The underlying philosophy is that if physical education class can be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness, then the lessons they learn will serve them for life. And probably a longer and happier life at that. Spark, p. 12

Ratey presents study after study that proves that fitness is essential to maximizing not only people’s health & happiness — but also their smarts. Turns out we think especially clearly and effectively after we engage in:

  • 30 minutes of aerobic activity, and
  • complex physical tasks.

This kind of fitness literally builds new neuropathways in our brains, as well as strengthens old ones. As the coaches in Naperville 203 are fond of saying, “in [the PE] department, we create the brain cells. It’s up to the other teachers to fill them” (Spark, p. 19).

MuseCubes Help Us Remember to Move

I’ve known through experience that movement effects my thinking. In fact, the more I move, the more I experience freedom, passion, balance, and productivity.

What’s amazing to me, though, is how often I forget to move! Yesterday I spent over 6 hours on the computer. I woke up this morning in physical pain, emotionally drained, and without an ounce of alertness.

As a heady intellectual, I’m constantly looking for ways to be more embodied. That’s where MuseCubes come in.

Now, a MuseCubes break takes 30 seconds, not the recommended 30 minutes.  However, I notice this: the more I remember to roll the MuseCubes, the more I choose to move in other aspects of my life, too.

For example, on days that I wiggle and howl with the MuseCubes, I’m more likely to take a 10 minute dance break, and then ALSO go on a longer walk. Movement inspires more movement, which eventually builds up to fitness! Ahhh, I love incrementality.

Ratey himself says that “the most important thing is to do something” (Spark, p. 250). And if that something ultimately adds up to six hours a week of exercise on behalf of your brain — well, that sure is smart!

OK, speaking of moving, I’m gonna finish this blog post and walk to the library to return Ratey’s book. What are you going to do to exercise today?



This post is part of a project to share reflections about all 28 of the Core Elements of InterPlay.  For background information about InterPlay or this project, read What the Heck is InterPlay?!.

What creates information overload for you?

Too much time browsing the internet does it for me. And juggling multiple creative projects at once.  Not to mention the emotional ups and downs of navigating the world as a (hopefully) clear and honest communicator. Phew!

Information overload can sometimes be too much of a good thing — like excitement about falling in love or finally accomplishing a personal goal.

When I’m in a State of Too Muchness, I crave balance. And that’s where exformation comes in.

Exformation is InterPlay‘s word for the process of moving unnecessary information out of one’s body.

Imagine for a moment that information is physical, and it accumulates inside our bodies. It’s almost like our bodies are sieves that process our daily experiences.

Most of the time our experiences flow easily through us, like the flour in the picture above. But sometimes that sieve gets clogged. What can we do to loosen up that gunky, yucky clogged feeling that comes with stress and overwhelm?

We can exform! And if information has a physical component, then so does exformation.

The simplest kind of exformation is breathing, sighing, and shaking your body out.

But exformation can include just about any activity that allows you to be truly in your body. The InterPlay facilitator’s manual suggests activities like

exercise, art-making, journalling, making love, taking long showers, meditating, doing housework, cooking, walking in nature, singing, etc.

I invented MuseCubes as a simple exformational tool. After a roll of the dice, folks can howl, twist, and sigh their way to feeling more refreshed and balanced. I’ve been collecting stories about all the ways people use MuseCubes to exform; you can read those stories here.

The regular practice of InterPlay is another way many people choose to get exformation in their lives. By telling our stories, playing with our voices, and moving our bodies, exformation becomes a multi-sensory experience!

The beauty of exformation is that we don’t have to wait for a State of Too Muchness in order to do it.  Instead, we can build exformational activities into the daily rhythm of our lives. Preventative exformation! I try and incorporate movement, creativity, and play throughout my day.

What do you do to keep your sieve clumpless and flowing freely?

Juggling and Expressive Arts — for Veterans!


Welcome to my first guest post ever! Occasionally I will use this blog to highlight how facilitators use InterPlay to change the world. This post is written by Dorothy Finnigan.

This Work Could Save Lives

I stared at the email.  “This work could save lives,” it said.  Had I really just been invited to teach InterPlay and juggling to a group of Iraq and Vietnam War Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?!

A day later, I was granted clearance to the Veterans Affairs (VA) facility. My host drove me through the rain, warning me to expect a tough reception from the vets. Some had just returned from Iraq; others were still healing from Vietnam. Once a week, they all took mandatory art therapy and wellness classes. On this day, I would be given the entire “wellness” hour to share whatever I wished.

Accessible, Playful, Unpretentious

InterPlay had been a personal practice of mine for under a year. I found it when I was craving the embodied wisdom of elders and the space to share my stories. With its practical forms and accessible, playful, unpretentious philosophy, InterPlay had helped me transition through harrowing circumstances and enjoy life more than ever.  Now, I wanted to share simple tools for relaxation, healing, and enjoyment with these vets.

A dozen people took their seats around the perimeter of the small, naturally-lit room. I stood before them and took a deep breath, letting it out with a loud sigh. “The best way I know to help myself relax is to take a deep breath. I invite you to take a deep breath with me.” This invitation seemed simple enough, and everyone obliged.

Optimal Health and Happiness

“I’m of the belief,” I explained as I drew five bullet-points on the whiteboard, “that to have optimal health and happiness in our lives, there are five things we need on a daily basis. The first one is to have our voice. Sighing is one of the simplest ways we can let ourselves have our voice throughout the day. So let’s take a deep breath, and let it out with a sigh. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.” The sighing got louder as people relaxed into the permission to have their voice.

“Another thing I need on a daily basis is movement. Right where you’re sitting, shake out a hand. Shake out another hand. Shake out a foot. Shake out another foot. Shake out what you’re sitting on.” Everyone participated. A few chuckled. One veteran got really into moving her rear around her chair. Within myself and around the room, I could feel the anticipation of fun growing.

It’s Not An Order; It’s An Offering

“Anything I say to you today,” I reassured them, “is just an invitation. An offering. It’s not an order. Feel free to alter or abstain from any activity.” I invited them to stand up. Everyone complied. I didn’t yet sense the major resistance I’d been warned about. “Shake yourself down into your spot…”

And with that, I took them through the InterPlay warm-up, welcoming and awakening parts of our body from head to toe. At one point a couple of veterans chose to sit down; true to my word and in keeping with InterPlay’s commitment to honoring individual choice, I simply continued leading. Soon both veterans were on their feet again, perhaps because they realized that my “do what is good for you” rhetoric was for real.

Juggling Is Good For You

After warming up, it was juggling time! I had spent 15 years teaching tens of thousands of people to juggle using slow-moving nylon scarves; yet, only recently (thanks to InterPlay) could I articulate why juggling helps heal the supposed “split” between mind and body. Neurological research increasingly confirms the integrative health benefits of juggling. Moving cross-laterally and tracing infinity sign pathways (which are the “secrets” to juggling) are movements that activate communication between left and right brains. This may help to inhibit Alzheimer’s, deal with dyslexia, and develop reading skills and higher order problem solving abilities. Turns out that juggling is not only fun, it’s really, really good for you!

Sharing Stories

Earlier, I had been cautioned by my host to expect the veterans to be self-conscious in the group because of certain judgmental personalities. However, as each individual’s nylon scarves kept falling to the floor, they just laughed at themselves and continued to enjoy learning. When I casually asked half the room to stop juggling in order to witness the other half, the vets enthusiastically applauded for one another! By slipping in this opportunity to witness and affirm their peers, we had avoided setting up a stressful paradigm of “audience” versus “performer” that might have activated judgment of self and others.

InterPlay is essentially a practice of doing stuff (with our bodies, voices, etc.) and then noticing our experience. With that in mind, I invited each veteran to take 30 seconds to share with a partner about learning to juggle. The vets were proud they had learned a new skill; they were also surprised how much of a workout they got out of three floaty scarves. With the group relaxed and confident, I then led them through a storytelling series. They got to talk about things like their favorite place in nature and a person on their mind. There were nods of agreement all around when I said, “I believe that sharing our stories — both the monumental AND the mundane — is another requirement for health and happiness.

The One Hand Dance

To close the hour, I taught the quintessential InterPlay form: the one hand dance. The beauty of the one hand dance is that anyone can do it. Raise your hand in the air and move it through space. Play with both smooth and jagged movements; make different shapes; vary the speed. For the veterans, I put on a piece of music and invited them to do a hand dance on behalf of the person who was on their mind. As partners witnessed each other, some pairs fell into deep laughter and others had tears in their eyes. One vet ended his piece with his hand over his heart. He and his partner sat in stillness for a silent minute.

And our hour was up. I invited them to take an idea or activity into their lives beyond this room. If nothing else, I hope they feel a greater sense of permission to take a deep breath and let it out with a loud sigh whenever they need a moment of grace.

A New Way to Express

Earnest “thank-you”s filled the air as the vets filed out of the room. As I packed up my scarves and sound system, I overheard Archie (one of the “resistant” vets I’d been warned about) telling his friend who hadn’t been able to attend, “You really missed something. Too bad for you, man. It was fun.” My host, who’d also overheard the comment, shook her head in disbelief.  “You won them over,” she marveled. “Even Archie.”

The other staff were impressed, too. “Not only did you give them an opportunity to relax and have fun, but there was a sense of peaceful group cohesion we desperately needed. Thank you!”

As I was leaving the facility, a veteran who had done a hand dance on behalf of his daughter, thanked me again for allowing him to have “a way to express.” Over the course of the class I had shared the belief that for optimal health, we need to be able to have our voice, our movement, our stories, our stillness, and our contact with others (otherwise known as InterPlay’s Five Recommended Daily Requirements). The invitation and opportunity to have these things, had given this vet a way to connect with his own truth.

Creating a Space of ProFUNdity

Who could have guessed that my old skill — juggling! — would integrate so seamlessly with InterPlay’s tools for holistic community development, creating an environment of ease, affirmation, and grace. The strength of these men and women, and particularly their willingness to open up when given the choice, touched and inspired me. I see now that this work has the power to be sneaky deep: to be both playful and transformational for individuals and communities. I’m looking forward to new opportunities to create a space of proFUNdity for groups, from intergenerational gatherings to corporate cultures.

Until then, I continue to work on having InterPlay’s five recommended daily requirements in my own life. Even now, sitting in this coffee shop writing, I take a deep breath, let it out with a sigh, and am grateful for this moment of grace.

Who is This Dorothy, Anyway?

Dorothy Finnigan grew up on the road, living in a motor home with her family as they taught juggling in elementary schools across the United States. She was world-schooled (her version of being home-schooled) until age 18, after which she traveled solo internationally, paying her way by juggling on the street.  After a brief stint of formal education at Yale University, Dorothy “walked out” to pursue intergenerational embodied learning. Now a graduate of InterPlay’s Life Practice Program, Dorothy is developing several workshops that integrate her skills as a juggler and a body wisdom practitioner.

“Relax Your Brain” with MuseCubes


Last August I invented an office toy called the MuseCubes.  It’s designed to liberate people who think too much.

Although I originally intended the MuseCubes for grown-ups, teachers have been buying them right and left.  They recognize the MuseCubes as the perfect, short break for stressed out students.

This afternoon, a geography teacher from a high school in Texas sent me the most amazing email.  She’d just read through all her course evaluations and couldn’t help but notice all the references to MuseCubes. Dedicated customer that she is, she typed up her teenagers’ words for me to read:

You should keep the muse cubes. They’re really fun and when you do what they tell you to do, it’s funny and it gets our hopes up. –Jose M.

I think you should keep the fun little cube game for next year because it relaxes our brain by making us laugh and, in that way, we think better. –Maria S

You should keep the muze cubes because they are a lot of fun and they are a great way of giving us a well needed break but not losing our focus at the same time. -Cesar M.

You should keep the little dice thing because that’s funny. –Irving A.

I think the cubes you used at the end of the semester were awesome and it lightened up the classroom when it was dead. -Lizeth C.

You should keep the silly dances you would do when we were tired. -Mariza S.  [Note: Mariza is referring to the fact that, sometimes the kids would watch Susan while she, alone, did what the MuseCubes said to do. It must be refreshing for students to watch an adult be such a goofball. At least, Mariza thought so!]

Wow! This is such great feedback.  I’m thrilled that Susan’s students realize how important movement and laughter is for their brains.

We humans were not designed to sit and think for hours on end.  We were designed to move and think.

Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to share your students’ words!