Why a professor asks students to exercise in class

"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," says Wendy Suzuki. (Credit: iStockphoto)

When Professor Wendy Suzuki turned 40, she realized that her social life didn’t match up to her professional life. Though she’d devoted her career to the neuroscience of memory, she’d amassed few cherished memories of her own.

Suzuki, New York University’s Center for Neural Science, decided to make some changes: 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. She describes this transition in her new book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better (HarperCollins, 2015).

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 writer Eileen Reynolds 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.

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.

Source: NYU