For many students, this academic year marks their last year at the College. For others, it marks their first. Regardless of where you fit on this spectrum, something that we may have in common is that we want to start the year off on a strong note. Academically speaking, this goal can be largely achieved through dedication to classes. That, of course, includes taking notes, asking questions, and studying until the content has been mastered. But that’s nothing new, and this article won’t focus too much on those factors.
To start off your year performing at the highest level, science says there’s one other step you must take: exercise. Although most people are probably aware that exercise has obvious benefits for our bodies, some effects are overlooked. Particularly overlooked, I find, are its effects on the brain – the vital organ that ultimately drives our academic performance. There are many ways in which exercise can optimize the brain. This optimization, in turn, supports learning and academic performance.
This notion is emphasized in a story shared by Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neuroscience at New York University, in her 2018 Ted Talk. She begins her talk by claiming that physical activity has “immediate, long-lasting, and protective benefits for the brain.” She then supports this claim with a story of an “experiment” that she conducted on herself and explained the results using her vast knowledge of neuroscience.
At a point in her career when she was becoming quite well-known in the field of neuroscience for her research on the brain’s memory functions, Suzuki realized that she was actually quite miserable. She spent most of her waking hours alone in dark labs studying brain cells and had, as she describes it, “no social life.” After a certain point of enduring these challenges, the Professor decided that she no longer wanted to be miserable. So, she began devoting herself to exercise. She participated in a wide range of activities, including yoga, dance, and kickboxing classes. Although the beginning was difficult for her, she quickly picked up on an important pattern. That is, after every sweat-inducing workout, she had “this great mood boost and this great energy boost.” This boost is precisely what kept her coming back for more.
Roughly a year and a half after starting her regular exercise routine, Suzuki had an epiphany. One day, she noticed that grant writing — the process of applying for financial grants from institutions for research projects — was going very well. This is somewhat ironic, she points out, because grant writing is typically something that does not go well for scientists. In any case, she was taken aback by her capacity to “focus and maintain” her attention towards her work, which was why the grant writing was going so well. She also remembers perceiving her long-term memory as being stronger than ever before. Realizing that her devotion to physical activity may have been the cause of these changes in her productivity, the researcher knew she had to delve more into the scientific literature about exercise’s effects on the brain.
Without getting too technical, Suzuki then summarizes the conclusions from several published studies and starts listing the observed benefits: “better mood, better energy, better memory, better attention.” These are exactly the benefits that she had observed within her own life, which demonstrated to her “just how powerful” exercise is. Following this experience, the Professor shifted her focus within neuroscience to the effects of exercise on the brain.
After years of research on her newfound passion, Professor Suzuki has come to the following conclusion: “Exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today.” There are a few reasons why this is the case.
First, it has instant benefits for your brain. It just takes a single workout to boost the production of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are what cause the immediate mood boost as well as the increased ability to focus. According to Suzuki’s labs, these effects last for at least two hours after a workout.
Second, it has long-lasting (even life-long) effects. Consistent exercise can actually alter the physiological structure and volume of the brain. Exercise over the long term is shown to literally form new brain cells in the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for long-term memory, which contributes to improved mental performance on tasks like learning. Additionally, long-term exercise is proven to increase the presence of the aforementioned neurotransmitters over the long term, not just for a couple of hours after a workout. This chemical change in the brain results in a sustained boost in mood and energy levels.
If the previous two benefits of exercise aren’t convincing enough, Suzuki goes on to explain one final conclusion of her research. This last benefit has to do with the protection of the brain. By growing the brain’s hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, exercise has the potential to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and delay cognitive decline with age. She makes an important note that long-term exercise won’t prevent neurological diseases, but it will increase the time it takes for these diseases to actually have noticeable effects on the brain’s functioning.
At this point, Suzuki makes an unlikely comparison between long-term exercise and a 401(k) — a retirement savings vehicle used in the U.S. The only difference, she jokes, is that exercise is free. After learning about all of these incredible effects, the obvious next question is, How much exercise is required to reach these benefits? Well, according to Suzuki, it only takes three to four exercise sessions, each lasting a minimum of thirty minutes, per week. She recommends aerobic exercises, in particular, which include activities like jogging and biking. The goal is to increase the heart rate throughout the entire workout.
If all of this sounds like a “get rich quick” scheme for the brain, it’s not. The key to benefiting from exercise is to commit to it over the long term. While two-hour boosts in energy and concentration may be helpful in certain instances, what’s really going to put an individual into the best position to achieve their most ambitious goals is consistent physical activity, something that requires considerable dedication and work.
Although many of us already play sports or work out on a regular basis, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the many ways in which these activities support other facets of our lives. As we settle into this new academic year, I hope you can keep this article in mind and implement more physical activity in your own life to ultimately optimize your mind and body for the challenges that lie ahead in 2021 and 2022.