Why an NYU Neuroscientist Declared Exercise the Most Transformative Thing You Can Do for Your Brain

If you’re as busy as I am, finding the time to exercise can seem harder than bobsledding up a tree. But according to Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University, getting off your couch or up from your desk through your workweek can have an insanely positive influence on your brain. In fact, in her November 2017 TEDWomen talk, Suzuki went so far as to say that physical exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your mind.

Inspiration from experience

Suzuki explains that, like many a modern worker, her work left her pretty inactive physically. She was miserable, had gained weight and discovered the full extent of her weakness on a river rafting trip. Determined for change, she attacked her gym, trying just about every type of class they had. Her extra weight disappeared.

But her mood was better. Energy was better. Even writing her grants was easy, because she could focus.

Suzuki put two and two together and hypothesized that it likely was her exercise that was making a difference. But like any scientist, she wasn’t satisfied. She wanted details, so she started reviewing the literature and conducting new research in her own lab.

Your brain on workouts

Suzuki identified exercise as powerful for the brain for three reasons.

1. Physical activity gives you an immediate jolt.

As Suzuki explains, when you exercise, the brain releases a flood of neurotransmitters. These natural chemicals serve as messengers, helping cells in the body communicate and perform optimally.

Two of the chemicals released, serotonin and dopamine, help you feel happy, offering pleasure. Dopamine also plays a role in keeping you curious and motivated. A third chemical, noradrenaline (norepinephrine), is often connected to fight-or-flight. It ensures that you are physically able to respond, making sure your brain and heart both get plenty of blood and oxygen.

Taken together, these neurotransmitters translate to better mood, faster reaction times and an improved ability to shift and focus attention. What’s more, Suzuki’s research indicates the improvements can last up to two hours after your sweat fest.

2. Exercise literally changes your brain’s function, physiology and anatomy for the long-term.

If you engage in exercise consistently, improving cardiovascular function, exercise actually can produce new brain cells. More specifically, scientists see new development particularly in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

You use your prefrontal cortex for critical thinking, including planning and decision making. But it also is important for your personality and control of social behavior. The hippocampus is associated with the formation and retention of long-term memories for facts and events.

As the size of your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus improves, all of the tasks they’re associated with can get better, too. The brain really is like a muscle in that the more you’re packing, the easier hardcore work gets.

3. Working out can protect you from neurodegenerative disease and decline.

Think of your brain like a tree for a second. If you were a puny little sapling, one good wind or blow of an axe might topple you. But if you were big and stout with many, many rings of growth, you’d still be standing after big gusts, and a lumberjack would have to work pretty dang hard before yelling timber.

Now review the second point above. What makes your brain big and stout? Exercise! It doesn’t guarantee you won’t have the wind or lumberjack beating on you. But it does ensure that your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus can take more damage before you start to show symptoms. Diseases like Alzheimer’s or normal age-related decline thus might take longer to have an effect. For this reason, Suzuki says exercise is like a “supercharged 401K for your brain”. The more you invest through physical activity, the more you’re prepared to maintain a high quality of life in your future.

How often to put on your sneakers

Suzuki says that the minimum amount you can exercise and see the above benefits is around three to four times a week, 30 minutes per workout. The exercise should include truly aerobic activity that elevates your heart rate. But she stresses there’s no need for fancy equipment or an expensive gym. You can do most cardio virtually anywhere, and when it comes to strength, there are plenty of body-weight exercises. Just modify as needed for your fitness level.

Going the extra mile

Suzuki is confident about the minimum exercise recommendation. But she doesn’t want to take a one-size-fits-all approach. Her goal, she says, is to go beyond the basic rule of thumb and find your optimum. What is ideal for you? How can you maximize your results and give yourself the best protection given factors like your age, fitness level and specific genetics? You might not have that answer for a while yet. But you can at least get a start and pencil in some sessions based on what we know so far.

If you need even more inspiration, remember that exercise has benefits far beyond mental performance. Self-acceptance, discipline, independence, being truly present–you learn all those kinds of things over and over again through physical challenges. If you really want to be successful, those lessons are pretty tough to pass up.

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