KQED Author Deborah Farmer Kris who has taught elementary, middle and high school and served as a charter school administrator and spent a decade as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility, researching, writing, and consulting with schools shared that Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki was a rising star in the field of memory when she looked around and realized that her lifestyle wasn’t sustainable.
“I was trying to get tenure, and I was doing nothing but work,” she says. “I had no friends outside of my lab. I knew I needed to do something. I thought, at least I can go to the gym and try to feel stronger.”
She signed up for the classes that “looked the most fun.” As she expected, her mood and fitness level improved – but she began to notice something else at play. “About a year and a half into that regular exercise routine, I was sitting at my desk writing a grant and this thought went through my mind, ‘Writing is going well!’ I had never had that thought before. Then I realized that all of my work had been going better recently, and the only major change I had made to my life was regularly working out.”
That observation prompted her to explore what exercise was doing to her brain. “My hippocampal memory was clearly better at remembering details and retrieving information.”
These days, Suzuki has switched her primary research focus to the cognitive benefits of exercise. She is the author of the book Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better, and gave a popular TED Talk on exercise and the brain.
She also teaches a class at NYU called “Can Exercise Change your Brain?” To tap into the brain-boosting effects of movement, she begins each class with an hourlong workout session, followed by a 90-minute lecture and discussion. She has been measuring outcomes of this hybrid teaching method in quantitative and qualitative ways. “One student told me, ‘In my other 9 a.m. classes, I am hugging my Starbucks cup. In this class, I don’t even need to take notes because I remember what is said.’”
She says exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain, and she is on a mission to help her students and the public understand the “life-changing,” mood-boosting, cognitive-enhancing effects of physical activity.
The Cognitive Benefits of Exercise
Suzuki encourages people to think about the brain like a muscle. Exercise strengthens both the prefrontal cortex (which is involved in executive functioning) and the hippocampus (which plays a key role in memory and learning). In this way, exercise supports our ability to think creatively, make decisions, focus and retrieve key information. In her research, Suzuki found a single workout can improve a student’s ability to focus on a task for up to two hours.
Exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons, Suzuki explains, in a process called neurogenesis. In addition, it increases the neurochemical BDNF, which acts as a fertilizer, strengthening neurons and making them less susceptible to breaking down. Physical activity also increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine and endorphins that support emotional well-being, motivation and response to stress. As we age, exercise has a protective effect on the brain, says Suzuki, making it less susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline. With exercise, “you are making synaptic connections, and you are making more synapses grow. Movement will help your brain today and protect you against neurological decay in the future.”
The Case for Movement in School
Recess has cascading benefits for children, says Suzuki. “It really has to do with what we know about how the brain works and how we can rejuvenate brain activity – particularly focus, attention and mood. When you cut down recess, you are removing time that kids can run around. And when they run around, their brains are getting a bubble bath of good neurochemicals, neurotransmitters and endorphins. These help memory and mood. A simple burst of exercise helps students focus better — to filter out what they do and do not need to pay attention to in class.”
She argues that movement breaks in K-12 classrooms support the deep kind of learning that they should be striving for.
“Adults need this, too,” says Suzuki, including teachers. “Even though it takes time from your workday, it will give you back time. You will be more productive if you take that time off. Even if it’s just a walk up and down the stairs or a walk around the block. That is a surefire way to make your work more productive. It’s how humans were built. We were not built to sit in front of a screen all day long. Our bodies and brains work better with regular movement. It’s better than coffee.”
Adding more movement to the school day is an attainable goal, says Suzuki. She points to a program called The Daily Mile, an initiative that started six years ago at an elementary school in Scotland. The head of school, Elaine Wyllie, “realized that students weren’t looking healthy,” says Suzuki, “so she asked teachers to take their students for a 15-minute walk or run every day.” More than 8,000 schools in 65 countries — including half of all schools in Scotland — have now adopted this program. The website includes guidelines and tips for making the program accessible to all students with the aim of helping them become “fitter, healthier, and more able to concentrate in the classroom.”
Reframing Exercise as Movement
Suzuki recognizes that “exercise can be a four-letter word” for some people — something that feels unpleasant or impractical, given the demands of life. So she has begun to talk about it as simply “movement” in her talks and workshops. One of her favorite “brain hacks” is taking a mundane task and making it more physical — such as “vacuuming like Mrs. Doubtfire.”
“The thing is, there are so many ways to move your body,” says Suzuki. “It’s hard to get someone who does not exercise to move regularly. Once you get over the hump, you can start to be much more mindful and see and feel the immediate effects of exercise – you are literally changing your brain.”