Meet author Wendy Suzuki, world-renowned neuroscientist, tenured professor at NYU, and now author of the newly-released book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better.
Wendy has taken an unparalleled journey using exercise as a gateway to building a more vibrant social life, sparking her creativity, and engaging in a host of mindful activities. She has then used her expertise in neuroscience to pinpoint exactly how these actions not only make her brain work better but also made her feel, well, happy.
Tell us about the moment that kick-started your journey into fitness?
I was on a white water river rafting trip in the heart of Peru with a bunch of great adventure travelers including a bunch of triathlete friends who took the trip together. We had just chosen a spot to camp on the banks of the Cotahuasi River to camp the first night of our adventure and we were asked to form a human "fire line" from the boat, up the bank of the river to the camping site so we could all help haul all the equipment from the boats up the camp for the night.
It was at that moment that I saw what looked like a 100 pound pack coming towards me on the line did I realize how weak my upper body strength really was. Of course my fellow river rafters didn't let that huge pack squish me like a bug. Instead they essentially passed the pack from one side of me to the other, "helping" me pass it along the line.
They helped me save face, but from that moment I vowed that I was never going to be the one who could not pull her own weight again! The day after I returned from that trip, I marched down to the new sports club that had opened not far from work and not only signed up for a membership, but got myself a personal trainer just to be sure that my new fitness pledge would stick.
One of my favorite stories is when you put your findings into practice with a seminar that was part fitness/part academic; a seminar that essentially “forced” you to become a certified fitness instructor. Can you provide detail into that story?
Yes! That's one of my favorite stories from the book too! I started out just wanting to learn more about the neuroscience literature on the effects of exercise on brain function and I knew the best way to teach myself a new topic area was to teach my undergraduates about it in the form of a new class.
But then I thought that it was exercise that inspired me to learn about this topic in the first place so wouldn't it be fun to bring exercise into the classroom to allow students to experience regular physical exercise as they were learning about the effects of exercise on their brain. Well, I soon learned that there were no extra funds to hire an exercise instructor to teach my class so I decided I would have to just do it myself and decided to go out and get certified as a group fitness instructor for my very favorite class that I took at the gym, a class I talk a lot about in my book called intenSati.
My idea was to start each class with an hour of exercise (intenSati) and then move into a lecture/discussion about all the neuroscience studies that have examined the effects of exercise on the brain's anatomy, physiology and function.
Training to be an exercise instructor was a blast and I actually trained for about 6 months, teaching practice classes before my "real" class started. But then I realized that this class had the makings of real research study with the students serving as the participants. I was going to test the students at the beginning and at the end of the semester on a series of tests to see if their memory improved with the increase exercise they got in my class.
I would also test a group of "control" subjects taking a different elective course in my department. So what started out started out as me just wanting to learn more about the current neuroscience findings on the effects of exercise on brain function turned into a 6 month sweat-filled adventure as I designed one of the most fun classes I have ever taught!
The next question that everyone wants to know is: Did the student's memory improve? The answer is that we didn't find a clear memory improvement, but we did see that my exercising students improved their reaction time significantly with exercise compared to the control class. This was actually very exciting for me because my students only exercised once a week for this class and if I could start seeing changes with this relatively modest increase in exercise, imagine what I might find with even moderate levels of increased exercise. This class was really the start of my science-based fascination with the effects of exercise on brain function.
Your research shows conclusive and profound effects of exercise on areas of the brain important for attention, memory and mood. Can you share with us a little bit more about your findings?
Here I need to differentiate between what my lab has shown and the findings in the field of the neuroscience of exercise.
Studies in humans have shown clear improvements in attention with exercise, though the vast majority of these studies are in older adults. Studies have shown that exercise can be as effective as one of the most commonly used anti-depressant in people suffering from severe depression and many studies in rodents have shown that exercise in the form of wheel running can improve performance on a range of different memory-demanding tasks.
Some of the major goals of my lab are to define in healthy non-aged adults, how much and what kind of exercise is optimal for improving attention, memory and mood. Is it the same exercise prescription for all three brain functions? Do certain forms of intensities or durations of exercise work better than others?
We have shown that twice a week aerobic exercise with affirmations (what I call "intentional exercise") improves 4 measures of mood and quality of life in a group of patients with traumatic brain injury. We have also shown that just one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise on a stationary bike significantly improves several measures of prefrontal cortex function including attention. We are in the midst of many other studies in my lab right now.
You’re working on even more pioneering brain research on what you’re calling “intentional exercise” — that is, the effects of exercise combined with positive affirmations that lead to mood-boosting effects, greater sense of self and overall happiness. What’s your big idea around this area of science
The big idea here is that by combining both physical aerobic movement with positive affirmations like "I am strong" or "I believe I will succeed", you take full advantage of the power of the mind-body connection.
That is, exercise at the level of the body is improving brain function in the ways I describe above, and the affirmations work not only to boost your "attitude", but can also work to actually change and improve the physiology of your body, making you actually feel and act stronger than if you had not said the affirmations. I have found this is true for me and I'm in the process of exploring this idea scientifically in my lab.
At Movemeant Foundation, our contention is that exercise can unlock the potential for young women to overcome their body image insecurities, to deepen their sense of self and to discover their best version. Any parting thoughts for our readers?
I am in total agreement with this idea and I would add that including positive, empowering affirmations in conjunction with that physical exercise (i.e., making it intentional exercise) can boost that effect even more. Keep doing what you are doing to make a difference in the world Movement Foundation!
Meet Wendy Suzuki at Dare to Bare NYC and bring a copy of her newly-launched book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life with you to get an autograph (or buy an autographed copy at Dare to Bare!)