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Boosting Brain Health with Manual Therapy and Exercise

By Dr. Grove Higgins

Introduction – The Brain-Body Connection

The brain and body are interconnected in intricate and profound ways. Nurturing this crucial connection may be the key to unlocking optimal health and well-being.

Manual therapy, a hands-on approach often used by physical therapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths, has been gaining attention for its potential benefits to brain health. Concurrently, the power of exercise, a well-known pillar of physical health, is increasingly recognized for its impact on cognitive function. Manual therapy and exercise form a potentially potent duo for boosting brain health, a subject that deserves our full attention.

Part 1: The Science Behind Boosting Brain Health

The human body is a network of nerves that relay information between the brain and various body parts. Research demonstrates that manual therapy can stimulate the brain through techniques, such as massage or joint manipulation, stimulating the nerves in the treated areas, sending signals back to the brain. This process can alter brain activity and even promote neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize and form new neural connections (Cottingham, 1985).

Exercise, too, plays a significant role in cognitive function. When we engage in physical activity, our heart rate increases, pumping more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Exercise also triggers the release of various growth factors (chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells), the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance of and survival of new brain cells (Ratey & Loehr, 2011).

Numerous studies support the connection between exercise, manual therapy, and brain health. For instance, a review of multiple studies found that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and diseases such as Alzheimer's (Ahlskog et al., 2011). Another study found that spinal manipulation, such as from a chiropractor, can positively affect brain function, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for high-level cognitive tasks (Lelic et al., 2016).

The combination of manual therapy and exercise has potential synergistic effects. At the minimum, manual therapy can improve movement, making it more enjoyable and potentially less painful. When movement no longer hurts, you are willing to move more (walking, athletics, etc.). Improvements made through manual therapies are maintained when they are used and so, in this scenario, you hold onto those improvements better.

Part 2: Deep Dive into Specific Therapies and Exercises

Unleashing the Potential of Manual Therapy

Manual therapy techniques involve hands-on treatment to stimulate the body's nerves and muscles. Methods range from massage and joint mobilization to more specialized techniques like myofascial release, chiropractic, and craniosacral therapy. For instance, massage therapy has shown promising results in reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress, all of which can impact cognitive function (Moyer et al., 2004). Craniosacral therapy, a gentle hands-on method that manipulates the joints in the cranium or skull, has been reported to improve mental clarity and increase feelings of relaxation (Raith et al., 2020).

Choose to Move: Selecting the Right Exercises for Brain Health

When it comes to exercise, any movement is better than none. However, certain types of exercise

may have more profound effects on brain health. Aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, is particularly beneficial.

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Aerobic exercise as simple as walking can increase the size of the hippocampus, a brain area crucial for memory and learning, and improve cognitive function in older adults (Erickson et al., 2011). Whether outdoor or stationary, cycling has been linked to better brain health and cognitive function, likely due to increased blood flow to the brain during exercise (Guiney & Machado, 2013).

Part 3: Practical Application – Boosting Brain Health in Daily Life

Science clearly reveals the brain-boosting effects of combining manual therapy and exercise, it's time to discuss how you can incorporate these strategies into your everyday routine.

Walking and Cycling – The Brain-friendly Exercise Regimes

Start by incorporating more walking or cycling into your day. Not only do these activities boost brain health, but they also fit easily into most schedules. Whether it's a brisk walk during your lunch break or cycling to work instead of driving, every bit of movement counts. For optimal benefits, aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise most days of the week, as recommended by the American Heart Association (American Heart Association, 2018).

The Magic of Self-massage

While professional manual therapy offers significant benefits, self-massage techniques can also

effectively stimulate your nervous system and promote brain health. Tools like foam rollers or massage balls can assist in self-massage, helping to relieve muscle tension and stimulate superficial nerve endings. One study found that self-myofascial release, a form of self-massage, can improve the range of motion without decreasing muscle strength, potentially leading to better overall body function and brain health (Beardsley & Škarabot, 2015).

Hot Packs for Tight Shoulders – An Unexpected Brain Booster

Finally, consider using a hot pack to ease tight shoulders. The heat from the pack can increase blood flow to the area, helping to alleviate tension and discomfort and positively impacting cognitive function. One study of workers with chronic shoulder-neck pain found that those who used heat therapy reported reduced pain and improved memory and recall (Nadler et al., 2002).

In conclusion, the path to better cognitive performance might not be confined to mental exercises and brain games. By nurturing the brain-body connection through manual therapy and regular physical activity, we can foster a holistic approach to brain health.

Part 4: Conclusion – The Path to Better Cognitive Performance

It's time to translate this knowledge into action.

  1. Schedule a treatment session with a professional who can guide you in manual therapy tailored to your needs and teach you what you can do to help yourself.

  2. Choose to move by walking, hiking, or cycling, and strive for daily consistency in your physical activity.

  3. Invest in tools that facilitate self-massage (such as foam rollers &/or massage balls) and make it a part of your daily routine.

  4. Do your family a kindness and share the knowledge and tools with them!

These are only a few tools, and very general tools at that. The power to enhance your cognitive performance is within your grasp. So, are you ready to embrace the brain-body approach? Your journey towards better brain health starts today.


  • Cottingham, J. T. (1985). Healing through touch: A history and a review of the physiological evidence. Rolf Lines, 13(2), 16-32.

  • Ratey, J. J., & Loehr, J. E. (2011). The positive impact of physical activity on cognition during adulthood: a review of underlying mechanisms, evidence and recommendations. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 22(2), 171-185.

  • Ahlskog, J. E., Geda, Y. E., Graff-Radford, N. R., & Petersen, R. C. (2011). Physical exercise as a preventive or disease-modifying treatment of dementia and brain aging. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 86(9), 876-884.

  • Lelic, D., Niazi, I. K., Holt, K., Jochumsen, M., Dremstrup, K., Yielder, P., ... & Haavik, H. (2016). Manipulation of dysfunctional spinal joints affects sensorimotor integration in the prefrontal cortex: A brain source localization study. Neural plasticity, 2016.

  • Moyer, C. A., Rounds, J., & Hannum, J. W. (2004). A meta-analysis of massage therapy research. Psychological Bulletin, 130(1), 3-18.

  • Raith, W., Marschik, P. B., Sommer, C., Maurer-Fellbaum, U., Amhofer, C., Avian, A., ... & Einspieler, C. (2020). Effects of craniosacral therapy as adjunct to standard treatment for pelvic girdle pain in pregnant women: a multicenter, single blind, randomized controlled trial. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 24(1), 77-85.

  • Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., ... & Wojcicki, T. R. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 3017-3022.

  • Guiney, H., & Machado, L. (2013). Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20(1), 73-86.

  • American Heart Association. (2018). American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids.

  • Beardsley, C., & Škarabot, J. (2015). Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 19(4), 747-758.

  • Nadler, S. F., Steiner, D. J., Erasala, G. N., Hengehold, D. A., Abeln, S. B., & Weingand, K. W. (2002). Continuous low-level heat wrap therapy for treating acute nonspecific low back pain. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 83(3), 317-322.



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