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My Brain on Exercise: One Professor's Grand Experiment

head with brain inside with scribble on it on a red background

There’s nothing quite like a milestone birthday to make you take stock of your life—and as Wendy Suzuki stared down the big 4-0 she was struck by some difficult truths. As a tenured professor in charge of her own lab at NYU’s Center for Neural Science, she had everything she’d been dreaming of since falling in love with the human brain during a fateful freshman seminar at UC Berkeley.

The trouble was that she didn’t have much else. “It was as if I were leading a double life,” Suzuki writes of the realization in her new book Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better. “My science life was like one big party that you never wanted to leave, with lots of interesting colleagues to talk to and always something new and interesting in the works. By contrast, my social life was like one of those deserted ghost towns in a Clint Eastwood western with bunches of tumbleweed swirling around the dusty road.”

She didn’t date. She didn’t stand up for herself when colleagues piled on extra work. Her one real hobby—eating out—had made her overweight. And worst was the essential irony of it all: Though she’d devoted her career to the neuroscience of memory, she’d amassed few cherished memories of her own.

That’s when Suzuki decided to make a change. It started with joining a gym, cutting down on carbs, and loading up on veggies. As her fitness improved, so did her mood, her energy level, and her sense of confidence—so much so that she was inspired to give online dating a whirl and mend some strained personal relationships that had long been causing her stress.

But that wasn’t all. As a neuroscientist who’d begun an impromptu experiment on her own brain, Suzuki was taken aback by some unexpected results. She not only looked forward to exercise, but noticed that creative work—like writing grants and research—came easier on the days she worked out. That’s how she became interested in studying the effects of exercise on the brain—a topic that has since bloomed from a side project to a major focus of her career.

photo: portrait of Wendy Suzuki in her office

As part of that journey, Suzuki even became certified as a fitness instructor so that she could bring exercise into science class—first an aerobic workout, then back to labeling the parts of the brain—to see if it improved her students’ memories. Though no stranger to innovative teaching techniques (she once hired a gold hotpants-clad male burlesque dancer to drive home the point that memories of surprising, emotional, and attention-getting events are easier for our brains to retain), even she was nervous about how a roomful of undergrads would react to their professor dressed in head-to-toe spandex.

In Healthy Brain, Happy Life, Suzuki interweaves such stories from her own life with lessons from neuroscience 101. While dismissing some common brain science myths that are mainstays of the self-help industry, she also offers her own “brain hacks”—four minute exercises, from doing squats while you brush your teeth to thinking up new uses for a rubber band—to help you start small in building new habits to sharpen thinking and increase creativity. You don’t have to be a triathlete to benefit from exercise, she says.

NYU Stories sat down with Suzuki to talk about the neuroscience behind teaching an old dog new tricks, and about why you shouldn’t skip your workout during finals week. 

book cover: Healthy Brain, Happy Life

In the book you talk a lot about the concept of brain plasticity. Is it really so easy for us—as adults—to change the way our minds work?
Brain plasticity is a fancy way of saying that the brain can change in response to the environment. Every time you learn something new, something in your brain changes. I mean something physical—something molecular in your brain changes. We are creatures of habit, but other parts of our brain are just waiting there to be able to shift and to modulate depending on what the environment is. This has to be with evolution: You can’t just act out of habit when there's a bear waiting to eat you—you have to be able to respond to novelty and steer away from danger even if you're in a brand new environment.

How did you come to start using exercise in your classroom?
After I joined a gym and found a trainer, I was getting more regular with my exercise, but then I found a class that really motivated me even more, and that class was called IntenSati. It pairs physical movements from kickboxing and dance and yoga with positive spoken affirmation. So you say things like, "I believe I will succeed!" and "I am strong now!" I left the class and I felt like a million bucks because I had just spent the last hour shouting things like, "I'm great!" I thought, "I can't wait to get back to the next class! This is going to be really fun." And since I'm a teacher, and I wondered whether my students had that same response after they left my classroom.

Did it take some time for your students to warm up to the idea?
There was a lot of nervous laughter at first. But they quickly got into it and it completely broke the ice and shifted the energy in that classroom. The enthusiasm that started in the exercise portion bled over into the academic portion. And it turns out that I learned so much about teaching from teaching this class—about a different kind of motivation, a different way to interact with students. It changed the way I teach all my classes.

What about your colleagues on the faculty? Did you ever worry about how they would react to the class, and to your writing about your personal life?
Yes, I had some concern early on about the reaction to my first class "Can Exercise Change your Brain" when I brought exercise into the classroom. I'm sure some thought I was a little crazy doing that, but since I've decided to switch areas of study from memory to exercise I have received nothing but good wishes and kind words about how the memory field will miss my contribution, which has been wonderful. My closest colleagues who have actually read my book have been very supportive. Most have not read it and probably will not. I'm sure some think it odd that I have shared so many personal stories in my book, but if you really want to engage people and get them to understand concepts of neuroscience that can help them live a better life, you just can't beat a good personal story.

What do we know for sure about how exercise affects the brain, and what remains a mystery?
We know from studies of animals that exercise can improve learning and memory performance and decrease stress and anxiety lots. But how much of that research translates to humans? Only a small subset. We do know from randomized control studies, the strongest kinds of studies you can do, that exercise significantly improves attention function in humans. We know from correlation that the more you exercise, the less chance you have of developing dementia, and the better you tend to perform on cognitive tasks. But everyone always asks me, "What kind of exercise should I do? Is kickboxing okay or can I just run?" And that's what we don't know; we don't know the prescription. We can say with confidence that exercise is good for your brain but what I want to know, and this is the main work we're doing in my lab, is exactly how much exercise you need.

In the book you describe how you felt something like withdrawal when you missed a workout. Is being “addicted” to exercise similar to being addicted to a drug?
The main thing that links the two is the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s involved in all the things that give us reward—food, drink, and sex. Exercise does increase dopamine. Does it increase it as much as crack cocaine? No. But it goes in that direction and that is part of the motivation that you want to develop. The interesting thing about intentional exercise—exercise paired with positive intention—is that positive affirmations also stimulate dopamine release, and that gives you an extra boost of motivation. Dopamine is the special sauce that helps motivate you to keep coming back to exercise.

You write about your own struggle to build a meditation practice. What advice would you have for those just starting out?
I started and stopped so many different meditation programs and every time I thought, "Oh, Wendy, why can't you do it? It's not that hard." Well, the fact is it is hard. And for me it was really just finding the right kind of meditation for me and not beating myself up too much if I skipped a day or two or even a week now and then. And also realizing that I could do a shortened version. There’s a website I like called Tiny Habits, and the whole point is that if you want to start something new, the worst thing you can do is say, “okay, you have to meditate for 30 minutes a day.” Even 30 seconds the first time is okay—it’s hard enough to quiet your mind for just 30 seconds. Now I do have a regular meditation practice, and it’s not perfect, but I enjoy it and I miss it when I don't do it.

What about battling stress? How did you use what you know about neuroscience to ease tension in your everyday life?
Not all stress is bad. It’s a useful response to danger in the environment—if you don’t mobilize when a lion is coming at you, you die. But when it becomes chronic, we end up secreting stress hormones not only in those really life-threatening situations but 24 hours a day. And that’s really bad because over time, those stress hormones will kill key parts of your brain: the hippocampus, which is important for long-term memory, and the prefrontal cortex, which is important for thinking and planning and attention.

Personal relationships can cause a lot of background stress that oozes into our lives—that tension that you feel sometimes with coworkers or bosses or people that you’re supervising. I certainly have these situations, and have found that sometimes I’m able to diffuse them by sitting down with the person and saying, “I think this is really bad. Do you? Do you want to change it?” It certainly wasn't easy for me to have any of these conversations—it’s hard to step out there and admit that this relationship that you’re half responsible for kind of sucks. But it works because the truth is no one likes that kind of stress. Nobody says, “Oh, I really love this tension that I have with Wendy now.” Everyone wants to get rid of it.

Do you have plans to explore possibilities for physical activity in academia beyond the "Can Exercise Change Your Brain?" class? Are any other NYU colleagues on board with the concept?
Yes, I'm collaborating with Dean Richard Kalb to develop an exercise experiment that we can implement to a large group of incoming freshmen for the spring of 2016. We plan to start here and figure out logistics before we expand it out to even more students at NYU. It's still in the planning stages now, but we are excited about the possibilities! 


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