This week, the Lancet reported that regular exercise improves your mental health. Great news, but what is the connection between fitness and the brain? For part of the answer we tuned into Wendy Suzuki's TED Talk. A professor of neuroscience, Wendy accidentally made the discovery for herself and went on to discover how exercise changes the brain.
Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist and author, was doing well in her research on how the brain forms memories. Data was plentiful, she was getting recognition in her field and she was pleased. But when she stopped working, she noticed she had a problem. She had no social life and she was putting on weight. So she started to take some exercise. She went river rafting – and dancing and kickboxing and much else besides. Not only did she notice she felt better and lost weight, she found she could focus her attention better and for longer. She was so struck by the changes, she switched her research and discovered just how powerful exercise is.
“Exercise changes the brain's anatomy, physiology and function,” says Suzuki in her TED Talk. “The hippocampus produces new brain cells which increases its volume.”
The same thing happens to the pre-frontal cortex. Why does this matter? Because these two areas, which govern long term memory, decision making, focus and personality, are the most susceptible to degenerative brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“Exercise is the single most transformative thing you can do for your brain today,” says Suzuki, “and the most transformative thing is its protective changes. Think of it like a muscle. The more you work out, the bigger and strong the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex get.”
To get the benefits, all you need to do is get a minimum of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every other day. That’s it. Take the stairs. Take a hike. Take up tennis. Whatever you do, move! You will be so glad you did.