Exercise can have surprisingly transformative impacts on the brain, according to neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki. It has the power not only to boost mood and focus due to an increase in neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline, but it also contributes to long-term brain health.
Exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, improving long-term memory and increasing its volume.
Suzuki notes that you don’t have to become a marathon runner to obtain these results — even just ten minutes of walking per day can produce noticeable benefits. It just takes a bit of willpower and experimentation.
Wendy Suzuki: I have been fascinated with the hippocampus for many, many years. I started in 1998 as a young assistant professor at New York University studying the hippocampus to make a big splash in science and discover something really, really amazing.
So, I decided that I was just gonna work. For six years, I was only gonna work, trying to understand how the hippocampus forms new memories. I didn't have a lot of social relationships. I was eating too much takeout food. I was just feeling so lethargic, and that is what brought me to the gym.
And a year and a half later, I felt so good. And I had this amazing realization: my memory, my hippocampal dependent memory that I was studying in my own lab, that seemed to be better. Maybe it was this new level of physical activity that was causing this really extraordinary change, that my writing was going better. That was the first moment that I started seriously getting interested in how exercise might be affecting the brain and also helping the hippocampus.
My name is Wendy Suzuki. I'm Dean of the College of Arts and Science at New York University and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology. Because I studied the effects of exercise on the brain, people always wanna ask me about the 'runner's high.' What is it? How do you get it? I don't run. I'm a terrible runner.
However, it's a great place to start, because what it really is, is this feeling of euphoria that comes with running. But here's the good news: You don't have to be a marathon runner to get this. Every single time you move your body, you are giving your brain what I like to call "a wonderful bubble bath of neurochemicals"- dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, endorphins. And that's really key to the mood-boosting effects of exercise.
But that's just the short-term effects. What about long-term effects? What if you give your brain a bubble bath on a regular basis, for a week, or a month, or several years? That's when those 'growth factors' kick in. And what do the growth factors do?
We know that the growth factors go directly to two key brain areas. One is the hippocampus. The hippocampus is an extraordinary structure. It is one of the only human brain areas that can grow brand new brain cells in adulthood. And those growth factors help the hippocampus grow shiny, new hippocampal cells. And what does that mean? Your memory is better.
And the second is the prefrontal cortex, critical for your ability to shift and focus attention. Those are some of the both immediate and long-term changes that you get with exercise, that start with that neurochemical bubble bath. You don't have to become a marathon runner or a triathlete to get these benefits.
You might say, "Oh, well, I'm in the sedentary camp, there's no hope for me." Here's why there's hope for everybody: And that is the principle of brain plasticity. Brain plasticity is this idea that the brain has an extraordinary capacity to change or modify its wiring.
Are you walking a lot? Are you running? Are you keeping yourself physically active? Are you learning new things? With brain plasticity, even if you've been sedentary all your life, you can start moving towards that bigger, fatter, fluffier, and happier brain.
I love to advocate for personal experimentation. You know the science now, that you're giving your brain a bubble bath, it's gonna make your focus work better, it's gonna improve your mood. When are you gonna apply it in your life?
My motivational tip for everybody is start small and start with things you already know you like. If you hate running, don't run. You don't have to run. As little as 10 minutes of walking will start to give you immediate benefits in terms of decreasing anxiety levels, decreasing depression levels. Anybody can do that. You don't even have to change into your spandex.
Or start practically. One of the things that I did over the pandemic is I turned my weekly cleaning session into an exercise session. Have you ever seen that movie, "Mrs. Doubtfire"? Have you ever tried to do that choreography that Robin Williams did with the vacuum cleaner? It is hard. It is a great aerobic workout. And if you bring that play and that joy to even scrubbing the bathtub, it makes it more fun, it makes it more aerobic.
Start small, and then just add on. Can you walk a little bit more? Can you park a little bit farther away? Can you do another round of shopping with the big cart in Costco? Be more broad in your definition of bringing more movement into your life.