While exercise has been widely accepted for its cognitive benefits, practices such as yoga and meditation are gaining attention for their specific contributions to brain health. “Meditation can change certain anatomical structures of the brain, and attention function can be improved, just as it can be with exercise,” neuroscientist and Dana Alliance member Wendy Suzuki said in a podcast called Ariana Yoga, which focuses on her exercise-based brain research. The technique of meditating allows for the ability to focus attention without distraction, as well as a better capacity to control emotional impulses, she explains.
As a new type of workout, Suzuki has taken the concept of applying positive thoughts to physical exercise for a practice she describes as “intentional exercise.” The combination of a favorite aerobic activity paired with a positive affirmation or mantra “adds another element,” she says. “Exercise is changing all sorts of neurochemicals and growth factors in your brain,” Suzuki explains in the podcast. Her fascination with the cognitive effects of consistent exercise, and consequential shift in lab research from brain plasticity and memory, was sparked through her own positive experience.
“I realized I was spending too much time in the lab…I needed to get stronger and get more physical…and I needed to shift my social life so I did something more than just work,” she says. After a year and a half commitment to regular visits to the gym (about three to five times a week), she noticed a distinct difference in her physical and mental states. She says:
I was calmer. I dealt with stress better. I was in a much better mood. But not only that, my memory seemed to be better. I was able to make associations in my brain, and my attention was significantly improved. That’s what made me sit up and notice, ‘hey, this is actually quite striking.’
While there has been a lot of research highlighting the benefits of exercise on older populations and young children, there is less information on how it improves the brains of young, healthy adults. As a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University and fitness instructor for Intensati, Suzuki continues to study the effects of exercise on all ages, particularly on the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is crucial for the ability to form new long-term memories, she says, and all of us have two—one on the right and one on the left. It is also one of only two brain structures where healthy adults can grow new brain cells (a process called hippocampal neurogenesis). Studies in rodents show that increased aerobic exercise will increase the birth of new brain cells. Suzuki has also learned that exercise can reverse the inevitable shrinking of the hippocampus that comes with age.
She described a study done on a group of people aged 65 and older, where it was found that after one year of increased aerobic activity, the hippocampi maintained the same size. “They didn’t become triathletes. They simply walked more, for multiple times a week for the entire year.” Meanwhile, the hippocampi of the control group—the non-exercising group—decreased in size.
Research is ongoing, and Suzuki hopes to unlock the formula for a perfect exercise routine, for all ages, to maximize its benefits. She stresses that the changes she felt from exercise “didn’t happen overnight.” It took a year and a half of “regular sweat,” but before long she was feeling inspired to learn more.
Listen to the full podcast here.
– Seimi Rurup