40 and frumpy. Fat and fearful.
That’s how NYU neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki describes her 1998 assistant-professor self, who went on a river-rafting trip in central Peru. “There was everyone from 16-year-olds to 60-year-olds, and I was the weakest link in the chain. After that, I said, ‘never again.’”
Upon her return to New York, Suzuki started exercising regularly. To her surprise, not only did her body begin to change, but her work started to benefit as well. Her energy levels and mood improved, and her attention span skyrocketed. “My memory was also better than it had ever been,” Suzuki attests.
Being the neuroscientist that she was, this fascinated her and led to a complete paradigm shift in her career. Since then, she’s dedicated much of her research energy to exploring whether exercise can change the brain’s physiology and function.
Her answer is an emphatic “yes.” And here’s how:
Exercise is what Suzuki, who penned Healthy Brain, Happy Life (Dey Street, 2016), calls a “neurochemical bubble bath for your brain.” It ramps up dopamine and serotonin, which makes you feel good, and noradrenaline, which boosts your memory. It stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) growth-factor proteins, which help new brain cells form in the hippocampus.
Where you really see benefits is when you work out regularly for months and even years on end. “Exercise literally resculpts your brain,” Suzuki says. “Long-term, regular exercise, where each workout is boosting the level of BDNF, helps more and more of these new hippocampal cells to be born and integrate. That’s when you get bigger, fatter hippocampi.” The benefit? A more agile brain that is better poised to stave off dementia, remembers things better and, according to some preliminary studies, may even be more imaginative and creative.
According to Suzuki, midlevel aerobic exercise—vigorous enough to raise your heart rate—has been proven to provide these cognitive benefits. Other types of exercise—such as, resistance training, HIIT, yoga and more—haven’t been as well-researched. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not as beneficial,” Suzuki says. “We just don’t have all the data yet.”
Suzuki’s latest endeavor, called BrainBody, is a tool she’s hoping will fill in some of those gaps by assessing people’s moods and cognitive responses right before and after they exercise. Over time, the information could help people in various demographics develop individualized workout plans that maximize brain benefits.
In the meantime, Suzuki’s recommendation is: Just get moving! “Find a way to move your body in a way you enjoy—that you will do regularly,” she says.
Your brain will thank you—now and for many years to come.