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Bill Jennings: Snowskating can keep body and mind sharp

Bill Jennings Correspondent

A growing body of research suggests learning a new skill at midlife will help keep your neurons firing efficiently as you grow older. Here’s one for you: snowskating. A snowskate is basically a skateboard with a short ski under it instead of wheels.

According to Bryce Rich of Coeur d’Alene, snowskates are catching on. He believes in the future of the contraption enough to have started a company, Boyd Hill Snowskates. He makes and markets his own designs and promotes snowskates as an alternative mode of sliding on snow.

“The ski is mounted on a set of trucks, kind of like a skateboard,” Rich said. “When you put pressure on the right side of the skate deck you put pressure on the right side of the ski. Anybody who snowboards should be able to ride one, but someone with a skateboard background might appreciate it a little more.”

To show you how it’s done, Rich is promoting a “binding free weekend,” with snowskate banked slalom events Saturday and Sunday at Lookout Pass and Silver Mountain respectively. He expects a field of early adopters to gather from around the northwest. Snowskates will be available for the curious to try.

If you don’t have the patience for crossword puzzles, a snowskate could be just the ticket for your midlife brain. The notion that learning something new, such as a language, will help keep your mind sharp isn’t new. But recent research shows learning a new physical skill can also be beneficial to your brain. What’s more, at midlife, a time when people expect to start having “senior moments,” the brain may actually being going through a growth spurt that should be cultivated.

Your nerves are covered with insulation called myelin that speeds nerve conduction. As you emerged from infancy, the myelination process enabled you to learn how to walk, talk and throw your food against the wall. It used to be believed that the myelination process ended about age five. But recent studies by Francene Benes, Executive Director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Research Center, showed that your brain could continue to myelinate well into your 50s.

Benes examined a collection of human brain specimens ranging from birth through age 76. She found that myelination increased into the early twenties before leveling off. But starting in the 40s, myelination resumed and continued into the mid-fifties, increasing another 50 percent before leveling off again.

Stepping on a snowskate could potentially reawaken your motor cortex, the part of your brain that determines whether you either waltz gracefully or trip over cracks in the sidewalk. Working with adult mice, scientists have found that forcing them to learn a new motor skill, such as running on a wheel with irregularly spaced rungs, significantly increased myelination of neurons in their little motor cortices.

Scientists use mice in experiments because they are similar to humans in many ways. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume this can happen to you. But being human, you have to crawl before you can walk. Fortunately, learning to snowskate could be more forgiving than other snow sports.

“Hard falls are actually pretty minimal,” Rich said. “You’re not locked into a board. You just fall on your butt, pick up the snowskate and step back on. The learning curve is gentler on your body without a doubt.”

Ski resorts are very particular about what kind of equipment they allow on the hill. Rich has done his due diligence to get snowskates accepted at all the inland northwest mountains. Leashes are standard equipment. To ride on a lift, webbing holds the deck to a foot, from which it dangles on the way up. At the top, kick out of the webbing and ride, binding free.

Boyd Hill, which is named after a Coeur d’Alene street Rich sledded down as a kid, makes snowskates for groomers, powder and all mountain terrain. A former snowboarder, he said snowskates are now his exclusive weapon of choice.

“It’s great because it makes small mountains big again,” Rich said. “A snowskate adds an extra element in powder and I can keep up with just about anybody all over the mountain.”

Based on what I’ve learned about the brain, maybe he isn’t crazy.

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