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The Disruptive Power of Exercise: Dr. Wendy Suzuki (Transcript)

Full text of neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki’s talk: The disruptive power of exercise at TEDxACCD conference. In this talk, Dr. Suzuki describes the neuroscience behind why exercise is the new magic bullet for your brain.


Dr. Wendy Suzuki – Neuroscientist & fitness instructor

Thank you so much Henry. Such an honor to be here.

So I am a neuroscientist. And in science, we have disruptive ideas, we call them paradigm shifts.

Now we typically think of a paradigm shift as Earth’s shadow, something that breaks the mold, something that destroys old dogma.

But the truth is that a paradigm shift can also be quiet and personal, yet still quite profound.

What I’m going to do today is tell you about a series of what I call cascading paradigm shifts, that really brought me to where I am today. And they start with one of those personal quiet shifts.

So my first story starts back in 1998 when I was a young assistant professor starting my first research position… professor position at New York University. I was so excited to start designing my own experiments, building my own lab. I was the most excited science nerd that you could ever imagine.

And the question that I was focused on was: what is the pattern of electrical activity in brain areas important for long-term memory? The one key brain structure I focused on is a structure called the hippocampus.

Now when I think back on those early years of starting my lab, the atmosphere in the lab reminds me of a fantastic dinner party that you never want to leave, because there was always something… somebody interesting to talk to and an interesting topic to talk about.

So that was the research lab.

By contrast, during that same time, if I think back on my personal life, the image that comes to mind is a dusty western deserted town from a Clint Eastwood Western with tumbleweed, you know swirling in the street, bone-dry.

I had no friends outside the lab, because I was working all the time. I went and ate take-out all the time. So few years in, I was 20 pounds overweight. And that part of my life was in desperate need of a paradigm shift.

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Well, my inspiration for that actually came in an unlikely place on a river rafting trip in Central Peru where I found myself the weakest person on the entire trip. There were 16 year-olds that were stronger than me, and there were 60 plus year-olds that were stronger than me.

And I came home and I said, “No way, I’m never going to feel like the weakest person on the trip again.”

I went to the closest gym and signed up for a trainer. And this time it worked my exercise regime stayed in place. And I’ll tell you the secret. The thing that helped me really stay with this exercise program was a class that I found at the gym.

It’s a unique class developed by this amazing exercise instructor named Patricia Moreno, and this exercise called intenSati combines physical movements from kickboxing, dance, and yoga and martial arts, and [Pearson] with positive spoken affirmations.

So intenSati, we say I am strong now, or I believe I will…

OK. I’d go to these classes and I’d be sweating and yelling affirmations a whole bunch of other sweaty affirmation yelling people and I come out of class feeling pumped up. I felt like a million bucks.

And so what this did is it raised my energy levels, it raised my mood, and not only that, it actually helped revive my bone-dry social life because I started meeting friends, meeting new people at the gym.

But actually the most amazing thing that I noticed was when I was at work. So I write a lot of rants, and what I was noticing with this regular exercise is that my attention span was deeper and longer than it had ever been.

My memory was better. I had to pull together facts from all these different scientific journal articles that I was reading, I could do that much better. And the writing was going well.

So this was clearly a major paradigm shift for me. With this increased exercise, I got better mood, better energy, better memory, better attention and a better social life. So that was clearly a paradigm shift.

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But this paradigm shift quickly evolved into yet another paradigm shift. This time in my career. Why? Because I was fascinated as a neuroscientist that my memory and attention seemed to be so strikingly improved and I went back to the science journals to figure out what we knew about the effects of exercise on brain function.

What I found was a series of… was an area of research that was growing and very exciting showing that aerobic exercise can change the brain’s anatomy, physiology and function.

Let me break that down for you. Let’s talk about mood for a second.

So we know that aerobic exercise can increase the same neurotransmitters that are decreased in depression, neurotransmitters like serotonin and noradrenaline. Exercise also increases the neurotransmitter involved in that feeling of reward. When you win a million dollars, dopamine also goes up with exercise.

Let’s talk about memory. There’s actually a large literature studying the effects of aerobic exercise in rodents. Usually they have the rodents running in running wheels. And what those studies have shown is that increased aerobic exercise in rodents actually stimulates the birth of many brain cells in that structure that I’ve told you about that I study, the hippocampus.

Now it turns out the hippocampus is one of only two brain structures in adults like you and I where new brain cells can be born. So without doing anything special, we all have a few new brain cells being born in our hippocampi. But with exercise it pumps up the birth of those new neurons.

And in rodents not only do get more brain cells but their performance on memory tasks is improved. I don’t know about you but I want as many shiny new hippocampal cells in my hippocampus as I could get.

Finally, let’s talk about attention. So it turns out the most common finding in studies on exercise in people is that increased aerobic exercise will improve your attention, your ability to focus attention and your ability to shift your attention.

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So I was fascinated, I wanted to go even deeper and I realized as a professor of neuroscience, the best way to learn an area of research is to teach a class on it. So I decided to develop and teach a new undergraduate class at New York University called: Can exercise change your brain?

And I was going to go over all the studies that I just described to you, in animals and people. But then I thought well this whole class was inspired by me going to the gym so wouldn’t it be fun if I could bring an intenSati instructor to class and have all the students exercise before class and then have me tell them what exercise is doing to their brain.

Well, that was a fantastic idea, and I ran to the administration; I said why don’t you give me some money so I would hire an intenSati instructor, because I have this great idea for a class.

And they said, “Well we paid you to teach the class. No extra money for an intenSati instructor.”

So I did what was seemed to be the next logical choice. I decided to go to the gym and become a certified intenSati instructor myself, which I did. So I took teacher training and I trained to teach this class for six months.

Okay, during this time of course I’m also developing the academic part of the course but I realized something important. I realized that my students would be exercising all semester and those students could be my first subjects in my first exercise study.

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