The Suzuki Method: Exercise and the Brain

After I’ve spent the majority of the day sitting at my desk or running around for work, it can be hard to muster up the will to exercise afterwards. While this comes easier to some than others, the positive feelings that follow a challenging workout seem universal. Exploring these emotions, such as joy or exhilaration, is part of what drives Wendy Suzuki’s research as a scientist and professor of neural science and psychology at NYU.

Suzuki’s fascination with the effects of exercise on brain function led her to take her research outside of the lab: She has become a certified exercise instructor for intenSati, a combination of kickboxing, dance, yoga, and martial arts with spoken affirmations. As part of Brain Awareness Week in New York City, she combined her passions into a class titled “Exercise and the Brain:” one hour of intenSati followed by a 45-minute talk on brain function.

Photo credit: Jenna Robino

Photo credit: Jenna Robino

The studio was occupied by about thirty people, the perfect amount to fill the space while leaving room for jumping jacks, jab-cross punches, and invisible drum-beating. I’ll admit, I was a little hesitant at first—I felt like a textbook example of the excuse-maker, letting my laziness trump my eagerness to participate. But thirty minutes flew by, and I found myself enjoying the company and unfamiliar routines more and more. With each combination, Suzuki had the group say affirmations aloud (e.g. “I will thrive, not just survive!”) to reinforce the chemical changes taking place within our brains.

After the workout, Suzuki explained that the combination of exercise and self-motivating declarations has been proven to increase the levels of serotonin, endorphins, adrenaline, and dopamine in our brains, as well as improve mood and focus. She even found that exercise can be as effective as major anti-depressants without the risk of side-effects—besides sore muscles.

Suzuki remembers the exact moment she realized she wanted a future in neuroscience. During her first year at UC Berkeley, she recalled watching her professor, Marian C. Diamond, Ph.D., stand in front of the classroom with a white lab coat, silk blouse, perfect hair, and latex gloves. From a classic hat box in front of her, Diamond carefully took out a human brain. She then asked, “What happens to the structure of the brain if you enrich the environment?” Suzuki wanted to know.

Diamond went on to explain a study she had done with rats. She filled one cage with toys and a running wheel and left another cage barren. The rats that lived in the “enhanced” cage soon not only developed thicker cortices, but also showed higher levels of neurotransmitter activity. They had more synapses, more angiogenesis (the birth of new blood vessels from pre-existing ones), and more hippocampal neurogenesis (new brain cells born in the hippocampus).

Wendy Suzuki

Wendy Suzuki

Following Diamond’s lead, Suzuki found in her own research that the main factor in noticeable brain changes was the presence of the rats’ running wheel–exercise. Aside from the obvious physical benefits, exercise has been shown to improve attention span, mood, cognition, and even writing, Suzuki says.

At the end of the event, even after sitting and listening for 45 minutes, the crowd seemed energized. When one woman asked if Suzuki still keeps in touch with Diamond–who is now eighty-nine–Suzuki put her hand over her heart and struggled to hold back her tears. She had spoken to Diamond recently, and they are scheduled to meet for lunch in June. In the call, Diamond expressed admiration for Suzuki’s devotion to neuroscience and passion for helping others make positive changes in their lives. Aside from her current work as a faculty member at NYU, Suzuki offers a free intenSati class every Wednesday evening in the Palladium Athletic Facility. All are welcome.

comebebrainy2015

This event was provided by the Greater NYC Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience and braiNY as part of Brain Awareness Week. If you live in the NYC area, tune in this Friday, March 20th for a special BAW segment on NY1 at 7pm and 10pm, featuring three braiNY partners. For more events in the NYC area, click here.  

-Seimi Rurup

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