I just returned from the Circus Smirkus adult camp in Greensboro, Vermont, where I focused on juggling with balls, clubs, and rings. I’ve been picking away at it for several years, but had developed little consistency and had no confidence to perform in public. I figured a weekend intensive would do the trick! It didn’t quite work out that way, though progress was clearly made. Juggling skills, like running, are built on incremental gains.
You may ask why write about this for a running blog? Sure, my interest is to take on something inherently challenging and rise to that. As is running and racing. And granted, there’s an element of wanting to twirl implements to impress others, and myself! But at root, it’s an attempt to stimulate and build neural plasticity, even at an advancing age. Any complex movement involves near-simultaneous processing of stimuli by our neurons with subsequent routing, in nanoseconds, to our muscles. It’s a fascinating and esoteric process too involved to go into depth here. But rest assured there’s a LOT going on when we write, run, or juggle!
However, let’s look at proprioceptors, which are highly specialized receptor organs in our muscles and joints that affect our balance and all activities involving coordination. We rely on proprioceptors to stay upright when walking and running. And when juggling! These receptors inform our brain about what around us needs to be managed, whether it’s a rock or tree root on the trail, a turn to make while driving, or a ball to juggle. The result of neurons and muscles working together is not surprisingly called neuromuscular performance, or NMP. Research indicates we may lose up to 40% of our spinal axons, nerves that transmit sensory impulses, along with a 10% loss of transmission speed. Thus, there is an inexorable loss of NMP. But the good news is physically active people experience less loss.
I marvel at what the 13-18 year old Circus Smirkus performers can do, solo and in groups. It looks like they grew up with juggling clubs in their hands. The truth is they had to work at it. But like most things, we pick things up easier in our youth, be it languages, hitting a baseball, or juggling. Studies do show adults who have been physically active for at least 20 years have reaction times equal to or exceeding inactive younger adults. But that is honestly a low bar. The truth is we start with about 100 billion neurons. And if we take care we can reduce the amount of loss, leaving plenty of neurons to tap throughout our lifetime. That doesn’t change the fact it’s harder to learn new things in our glory years. But it does suggest we can and should focus on the capacities we have and not the ones we don’t!
I WILL learn to juggle three clubs. It just may take a bit longer than hoped!