Number one: it has immediate effects on your brain. A single workout that you do will immediately increase levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. That is going to increase your mood right after that workout, exactly what I was feeling. My lab showed, that a single workout can improve your ability to shift and focus attention, and that focus improvement will last for at least two hours. And finally, studies have shown that a single workout will improve your reaction times which basically means that you are going to be faster at catching that cup of Starbucks that falls off the counter, which is very, very important.
But these immediate effects are transient, they help you right after. What you have to do is do what I did, that is change your exercise regime, increase your cardiorespiratory function, to get the long-lasting effects. And these effects are long-lasting because exercise actually changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology and function. Let’s start with my favorite brain area, the hippocampus. The hippocampus — or exercise actually produces brand new brain cells, new brain cells in the hippocampus, that actually increase its volume, as well as improve your long-term memory, OK? And that including in you and me.
Number two: the most common finding in neuroscience studies, looking at effects of long-term exercise, is improved attention function dependent or your prefrontal cortex. You not only get better focus and attention, but the volume of the hippocampus increases as well. And finally, you not only get immediate effects of mood with exercise but those last for a long time. So you get long-lasting increases in those good mood neurotransmitters.
But really, the most transformative thing that exercise will do is its protective effects on your brain. Here you can think about the brain like a muscle. The more you’re working out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets. Why is that important? Because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in aging. So with increased exercise over your lifetime, you’re not going to cure dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but what you’re going to do is you’re going to create the strongest, biggest hippocampus and prefrontal cortex so it takes longer for these diseases to actually have an effect. You can think of exercise, therefore, as a supercharged 401K for your brain, OK? And it’s even better, because it’s free.
So this is the point in the talk where everybody says, “That sounds so interesting, Wendy, but I really will only want to know one thing. And that is, just tell me the minimum amount of exercise I need to get all these changes.”
And so I’m going to tell you the answer to that question. First, good news: you don’t have to become a triathlete to get these effects. The rule of thumb is you want to get three to four times a week exercise minimum 30 minutes an exercise session, and you want to get aerobic exercise in. That is, get your heart rate up. And the good news is, you don’t have to go to the gym to get a very expensive gym membership. Add an extra walk around the block in your power walk. You see stairs — take stairs. And power-vacuuming can be as good as the aerobics class that you were going to take at the gym.
So I’ve gone from memory pioneer to exercise explorer. From going into the innermost workings of the brain, to trying to understand how exercise can improve our brain function, and my goal in my lab right now is to go beyond that rule of thumb that I just gave you — three to four times a week, 30 minutes. I want to understand the optimum exercise prescription for you, at your age, at your fitness level, for your genetic background, to maximize the effects of exercise today and also to improve your brain and protect your brain the best for the rest of your life.
But it’s one thing to talk about exercise, and it’s another to do it. So I’m going to invoke my power as a certified exercise instructor, to ask you all to stand up.
We’re going to do just one minute of exercise. It’s call-and-response, just do what I do, say what I say, and make sure you don’t punch your neighbor, OK? Music!
Five, six, seven, eight, it’s right, left, right, left. And I say, I am strong now. Let’s hear you.
Audience: I am strong now.
Wendy Suzuki: Ladies, I am Wonder Woman-strong. Let’s hear you!
Audience: I am Wonder Woman-strong.
WS: New move — uppercut, right and left. I am inspired now. You say it!
Audience: I am inspired now.
WS: Last move — pull it down, right and left, right and left. I say, I am on fire now! You say it.
Audience: I am on fire now.
WS: And done! OK, good job!
Thank you. I want to leave you with one last thought. And that is, bringing exercise in your life will not only give you a happier, more protective life today, but it will protect your brain from incurable diseases. And in this way it will change the trajectory of your life for the better.
Thank you very much.