Guest Author: Matt Klem
In the late 80’s, a team of NASA scientists sent a colony of bees into space.
As the rocket escaped Earth’s gravity, the astronauts on board noticed something strange, the bees began to die off. Without gravity, they no longer buzzed their wings to stay afloat, a behavior that was essential on Earth.
Fighting against the pull of gravity proved to be a challenge crucial to the bees’ health. Like these insects, struggling against day to day challenges is fundamental to human health.
The original story was found in a chapter from Ron McKeefery’s book, Weight Room Wisdom. The chapter, “Bees” was written by Whitney Rodden, the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at MidAmerica Nazarene University. Using the story as a metaphor, she explains that people don’t mature when life is easy. Instead, development occurs only in the presence of physical and mental challenges. By leaving one’s comfort zone and embracing moments of hardship and struggle, people set themselves up for growth and future success.
Like the bees, we too suffer consequences from a life without challenge. According to the National Institute of Health, a sedentary life will lead to multiple health complications, one of which is muscle atrophy.
This effect is not limited to the elderly, NASA has highlighted this issue occurring in astronauts during space missions. While on extended space flights, they are not working their muscles like they would on Earth. Muscles referred to as “anti-gravity muscles” – those in the back, quadriceps, and calves – are especially at risk. Even on missions lasting only 5-11 days, astronauts can lose up to 20% of muscle mass in these areas.
On the other hand, when muscles work against resistance, they have the potential to positively adapt. One form of positive adaptation is hypertrophy. During hypertrophy, muscle fibers called myofibrils respond to damage by growing back thicker and in greater quantities.
Whether it’s avoiding atrophy or encouraging hypertrophy, muscle health benefits from physical challenge.
The bees serve as a great metaphor for our brains. Inactivity in brain regions, as a result of brain damage or disease, is associated with cerebral atrophy: the loss of neurons and connections. An example of this can be seen in stroke victims who show accelerated rates of brain atrophy compared to healthy individuals.
The opposite effect can also occur; brain activity spurs neural development. In one study, London cab drivers – who must memorize complex city routes – showed growth in the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. In other studies, the primary visual cortex, developed new synaptic connections and dendritic spines when stimulated by visual input.
The absence of mental challenge can result in the stunting of critical learning processes. Children who are not exposed to language and are not challenged by practicing speech are unable to fully develop those skills themselves. In contrast, children who are exposed to multiple languages – an even greater challenge – can positively impact learning ability. Bilingual children learn a new language faster than monolingual kids.
Activating the brain through challenge mitigates deterioration and facilitates development and new learning.
Like muscles and neurons, the mind uses challenge as an opportunity to grow.
How people cope with challenge depends on their psychological resilience or lack thereof. When faced with adversity, stress, or threat, a pre existing state of low resilience can leave people vulnerable to emotional distress, unhealthy coping behaviors, and possibly depression or suicide.
These effects appeared in a study that measured resiliency among cardiac outpatients. Patients with low psychological resiliency scores exhibited symptoms of depression and hopelessness.
In another study, a pre existing state of high resiliency was tied to nursing school students having greater feelings of empowerment. That sense of feeling empowered mutually drives psychological resiliency. There was a reciprocal benefit.
Although people cannot control when challenging events occur, they can choose their response. It will not always be easy, but that’s kind of the point.
A Lesson from the Bees
Without challenge, the body, brain, and mind fail to develop. Muscles atrophy, neurons deteriorate, language is hampered, and motivation fades.
However, when challenged appropriately, there is potential for muscular hypertrophy, increased brain connectivity, greater learning capacity, and a sense of empowerment.
So the question now is: how can people use this knowledge to develop themselves and those around them? Specifically, what can educators – coaches, teachers, and parents – do to optimize growth and development in their pupils?
Answering this question is a challenge in of itself, and one that must be risen to. It is an opportunity for growth.