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Setting Habits for the Future: Neurologic Pathway Formation




I think about some of the healthy gifts my parents gave me just by the way we lived my life as a young child, such as eating from the garden, working hard, and exercising. While you may not see these as gifts, and I certainly didn’t at the time, I now realize that these set up normal neurologic pathways that help me be a healthier adult. 

Let’s break each of them down a little better:


  1.  Eating from the garden:  Eating from a garden meant that I was eating lots of vegetables at a young age. Eating veggies, we picked not only what seemed normal to me, but I really developed a love for some of the vegetables. I say some because we always grew zucchini, and unfortunately while I do eat some as an adult, I have never grown to like this vegetable! The reason I believe this is so important is that we develop our preferred taste buds as young children and since vegetables were a normal, I don’t see them as punishment. I’ve learned that I have to eat them as an adult to be healthy, and end up actually craving them!

Let’s look at the opposite of this: we worked in the fields hoeing cotton and we would sweat and lose salt, so I got used to adding more salt to my food at a young age to replace what I had lost in the field. While my taste buds like that level of sodium, I no longer do that same level of work. Thus my need for salt is less and I had to train myself to eat less sodium, since the pathway is already there.

  1. Working hard:  I certainly did not appreciate this gift as a child. I remember Sunday mornings we would go out into the yard to prune and weed for what seemed like hours.  My father informed me that it was only 2 hours, but as a kid it felt like forever. We also had to work really hard during the summer, helping on the farm. This was a gift of unmeasurable worth, because unlike many of my friends, I go to work as an adult cheerfully. I learned early on that work is normal and you just find a way to be joyful while doing it. I see so many people who are so unhappy in their line of work and many believe that it is because they aren’t doing a job they enjoy. The reality is that work is hard and you won’t like it all of the time or most of the time. Harvard had a recent study that stated the number one predictor of a child’s success, was chores. Not the school they went to, or after school extracurriculars, but learning how to work. Chores as a child lay down a neurologic pathway that tells our brains that work is normal, so that when they have to work as an adult, their brain won’t feel like it is being punished.

  2. Exercising:  Putting your kid in sports isn’t enough to send the message that exercise is important, as they need to exercise as a family and seeing it as a lifestyle. Just think about all of the adults you know who played various sports in high school, and are now living a couch potato lifestyle. Exercise and movement are pathways you build in your children simply by the choices you make. For example, do you always watch movies together as a family or do you go running? Do you make your kids do gardening with you so that they get movement? Do you have them walk the dog? Do you play tag with them at the playground? Movement is so important for health, that a study from the British Medical Journal done in 2024 showed that one of the best ways to beat the blues, is walking and jogging. They had a 62% reduction in patients compared to 26% on SSRIs (medication). This doesn’t mean medication isn’t needed, but the study did suggest that SSRIs plus walking were a much more successful treatment in severe cases. While you don’t think about helping your kids fight off depression when you take them running Sunday morning, the act of teaching them to exercise could one day help them fight of the blues as adults, just because you put those neurologic habits in place at an early age!

 


I have just laid down a gauntlet of challenge for most people, and an exhausting one at that for parents. To get those pathways of neurological health into your kids, you have to do them day after day which can get tiring. I have gotten home more than once and just wanted to sit to watch TV, but doing things with my kids and pouring knowledge into them is so important. I know I am literally investing in their future and happiness as adults. Sometimes I chuckle to myself as I am teaching them something and I think, “this will make adulting easier!”   


I do want to let anyone off the hook that has maybe grown up with less optimal habits, (like my salty food cravings) that you can still make changes at any time. Our nervous system has neuroplasticity and can be changed; it will not be easy, I can guarantee that. But it is possible, so start today to change those less than amazing habits!

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