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The brain-changing benefits of exercise – Wendy Suzuki

Wendy Suzuki key benefit of exercise

  • Exercise transforms the brain’s anatomy and function and has instantaneous, lasting and protective benefits.
  • A single workout immediately boosts your mood, focus and reaction times, though the effects dissipate.
  • A long-term, diverse exercise regime yields lasting improvements in focus, attention, memory and mood.
  • Exercise makes the hippocampi and prefrontal cortex bigger and stronger, guarding against incurable diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • To enjoy these brain-boosting effects, exercise aerobically at least 30 minutes three times a week. Any activity that elevates your heart rate, including walking, will do.

Wendy Suzuki is a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University.

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Working out has both immediate and lifelong benefits. Better mood, improved focus, and protection against conditions like depression, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are simply a matter of exercise. In our brain, two structures are relevant to exercise research. 

  1. The prefrontal cortex controls decision making, focus and personality.
  2. The temporal lobes on the left and right sides of the brain each hold a hippocampus, which allows you to form and keep long-term memories, like your first kiss or the birth of a baby.

“Exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today.”

Wendy Suzuki studied how the hippocampus cells behaved while forming memories but then a remarkable, personally relevant finding changed her research focus: Suzuki discovered how exercise transforms the brain.

Her memory research had brought Suzuki acclaim. Yet, the many lab hours she had invested depleted her social life and brought weight gain and unhappiness. After a river-rafting trip where she felt like the weakest of the group, Suzuki vowed to make changes. She joined a gym and sampled every class. She felt happy and energetic after the workouts and soon lost the extra weight. 

A year and a half into this regular exercise routine, Suzuki was working on a dreaded project – writing a research grant – when she realized how easily she was completing the task.

She had an epiphany: “Exercise was improving her attention, focus and long-term memory”. Thus, Suzuki began studying the effects of exercise on the brain and found three reasons that exercise “is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain today”:

  1. Immediate benefits from a single workout – A workout instantly, temporarily increases levels of  dopamine and other neurotransmitters, boosting your mood. For at least two hours after exercising, focus and reaction times improve. 
  2. Lasting benefits from continued exercise – For long-term benefits, diversify your workouts and increase your cardiorespiratory fitness. Exercise alters your brain’s “anatomy, physiology and function.” For instance, physical activity generates new cells in the hippocampus, increasing its volume and your long-term memory. Continued exercise lastingly enhances attention, focus and mood.
  3. Protection against brain disease – Exercise makes the hippocampi  and prefrontal cortex bigger and stronger, guarding against incurable diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“Think of exercise…as a supercharged 401(k) for your brain…And it’s even better because it’s free.”

To enjoy these brain-boosting effects, exercise aerobically at least 30 minutes three times a week. Try walking, taking the stairs, or doing any activity that elevates your heart rate. 

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