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TEDWomen 2017

Wendy Suzuki: The brain-changing benefits of exercise

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What's the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today? Exercise! says neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki. Get inspired to go to the gym as Suzuki discusses the science of how working out boosts your mood and memory -- and protects your brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

- Neuroscientist, author
Wendy Suzuki is researching the science behind the extraordinary, life-changing effects that physical activity can have on the most important organ in your body: your brain. Full bio

What if I told you there was something
that you can do right now
00:12
that would have an immediate,
positive benefit for your brain
00:17
including your mood and your focus?
00:20
And what if I told you that same thing
could actually last a long time
00:24
and protect your brain
from different conditions
00:29
like depression,
Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
00:32
Would you do it?
00:36
Yes!
00:37
I am talking about the powerful effects
of physical activity.
00:39
Simply moving your body,
00:43
has immediate, long-lasting
and protective benefits for your brain.
00:46
And that can last
for the rest of your life.
00:51
So what I want to do today
is tell you a story
00:54
about how I used my deep
understanding of neuroscience,
00:56
as a professor of neuroscience,
01:01
to essentially do an experiment on myself
01:02
in which I discovered
the science underlying
01:05
why exercise
is the most transformative thing
01:08
that you can do for your brain today.
01:12
Now, as a neuroscientist,
I know that our brains,
01:15
that is the thing in our head right now,
01:19
that is the most complex structure
known to humankind.
01:22
But it's one thing
to talk about the brain,
01:27
and it's another to see it.
01:29
So here is a real preserved human brain.
01:31
And it's going to illustrate two key areas
that we are going to talk about today.
01:34
The first is the prefrontal cortex,
right behind your forehead,
01:38
critical for things like decision-making,
focus, attention and your personality.
01:42
The second key area is located
in the temporal lobe, shown right here.
01:49
You have two temporal lobes in your brain,
the right and the left,
01:53
and deep in the temporal lobe
is a key structure
01:56
critical for your ability
01:59
to form and retain new long-term
memories for facts and events.
02:01
And that structure
is called the hippocampus.
02:05
So I've always been fascinated
with the hippocampus.
02:08
How could it be that an event
that lasts just a moment,
02:12
say, your first kiss,
02:17
or the moment your first child was born,
02:19
can form a memory
that has changed your brain,
02:23
that lasts an entire lifetime?
02:26
That's what I want to understand.
02:28
I wanted to start and record
the activity of individual brain cells
02:30
in the hippocampus
02:35
as subjects were forming new memories.
02:37
And essentially try and decode how
those brief bursts of electrical activity,
02:39
which is how neurons
communicate with each other,
02:44
how those brief bursts either allowed us
to form a new memory, or did not.
02:47
But a few years ago,
I did something very unusual in science.
02:52
As a full professor of neural science,
02:56
I decided to completely switch
my research program.
02:58
Because I encountered something
that was so amazing,
03:02
with the potential to change so many lives
03:07
that I had to study it.
03:10
I discovered and I experienced
the brain-changing effects of exercise.
03:11
And I did it in a completely
inadvertent way.
03:18
I was actually at the height
of all the memory work that I was doing --
03:21
data was pouring in,
03:25
I was becoming known in my field
for all of this memory work.
03:27
And it should have been going great.
It was, scientifically.
03:31
But when I stuck my head
out of my lab door,
03:35
I noticed something.
03:39
I had no social life.
03:41
I spent too much time
listening to those brain cells
03:43
in a dark room, by myself.
03:46
(Laughter)
03:47
I didn't move my body at all.
03:48
I had gained 25 pounds.
03:51
And actually, it took me
many years to realize it,
03:54
I was actually miserable.
03:57
And I shouldn't be miserable.
03:58
And I went on a river-rafting trip --
by myself, because I had no social life.
04:00
And I came back --
04:04
(Laughter)
04:06
thinking, "Oh, my God,
I was the weakest person on that trip."
04:07
And I came back with a mission.
04:10
I said, "I'm never going to feel
like the weakest person
04:12
on a river-rafting trip again."
04:14
And that's what made me go to the gym.
04:16
And I focused my type-A personality
04:18
on going to all the exercise
classes at the gym.
04:21
I tried everything.
04:24
I went to kickbox,
dance, yoga, step class,
04:26
and at first it was really hard.
04:30
But what I noticed is that after every
sweat-inducing workout that I tried,
04:32
I had this great mood boost
and this great energy boost.
04:37
And that's what kept me
going back to the gym.
04:41
Well, I started feeling stronger.
04:44
I started feeling better,
I even lost that 25 pounds.
04:47
And now, fast-forward a year and a half
into this regular exercise program
04:50
and I noticed something that really
made me sit up and take notice.
04:56
I was sitting at my desk,
writing a research grant,
05:00
and a thought went through my mind
05:03
that had never gone
through my mind before.
05:05
And that thought was,
05:07
"Gee, grant-writing is going well today."
05:09
And all the scientists --
05:13
(Laughter)
05:14
yeah, all the scientists
always laugh when I say that,
05:15
because grant-writing never goes well.
05:17
It is so hard; you're always
pulling your hair out,
05:20
trying to come up with that
million-dollar-winning idea.
05:22
But I realized that
the grant-writing was going well,
05:26
because I was able
to focus and maintain my attention
05:29
for longer than I had before.
05:33
And my long-term memory --
what I was studying in my own lab --
05:35
seemed to be better in me.
05:40
And that's when I put it together.
05:43
Maybe all that exercise
that I had included and added to my life
05:45
was changing my brain.
05:50
Maybe I did an experiment on myself
without even knowing it.
05:52
So as a curious neuroscientist,
05:55
I went to the literature to see
what I could find about what we knew
05:56
about the effects
of exercise on the brain.
06:00
And what I found was an exciting
and a growing literature
06:02
that was essentially showing everything
that I noticed in myself.
06:06
Better mood, better energy,
better memory, better attention.
06:11
And the more I learned,
06:15
the more I realized
how powerful exercise was.
06:17
Which eventually
led me to the big decision
06:21
to completely shift my research focus.
06:24
And so now, after several years
of really focusing on this question,
06:28
I've come to the following conclusion:
06:33
that exercise is
the most transformative thing
06:36
that you can do for your brain today
06:39
for the following three reasons.
06:41
Number one: it has
immediate effects on your brain.
06:43
A single workout that you do
06:47
will immediately increase
levels of neurotransmitters
06:49
like dopamine, serotonin
and noradrenaline.
06:53
That is going to increase your mood
right after that workout,
06:56
exactly what I was feeling.
07:00
My lab showed, that a single workout
07:01
can improve your ability
to shift and focus attention,
07:04
and that focus improvement
will last for at least two hours.
07:07
And finally, studies have shown
07:11
that a single workout
will improve your reaction times
07:13
which basically means
07:16
that you are going to be faster
at catching that cup of Starbucks
07:18
that falls off the counter,
07:21
which is very, very important.
07:23
(Laughter)
07:25
But these immediate effects are transient,
they help you right after.
07:26
What you have to do is do what I did,
07:30
that is change your exercise regime,
increase your cardiorespiratory function,
07:32
to get the long-lasting effects.
07:36
And these effects are long-lasting
07:38
because exercise actually
changes the brain's anatomy,
07:41
physiology and function.
07:45
Let's start with my favorite
brain area, the hippocampus.
07:48
The hippocampus --
07:52
or exercise actually
produces brand new brain cells,
07:53
new brain cells in the hippocampus,
that actually increase its volume,
07:58
as well as improve
your long-term memory, OK?
08:02
And that including in you and me.
08:07
Number two: the most common finding
in neuroscience studies,
08:10
looking at effects of long-term exercise,
08:14
is improved attention function
dependent or your prefrontal cortex.
08:16
You not only get
better focus and attention,
08:21
but the volume of the hippocampus
increases as well.
08:23
And finally, you not only get
immediate effects of mood with exercise
08:27
but those last for a long time.
08:32
So you get long-lasting increases
in those good mood neurotransmitters.
08:33
But really, the most transformative thing
that exercise will do
08:39
is its protective effects on your brain.
08:44
Here you can think
about the brain like a muscle.
08:47
The more you're working out,
08:50
the bigger and stronger your hippocampus
and prefrontal cortex gets.
08:52
Why is that important?
08:57
Because the prefrontal cortex
and the hippocampus
08:58
are the two areas that are most
susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases
09:01
and normal cognitive decline in aging.
09:07
So with increased exercise
over your lifetime,
09:10
you're not going to cure
dementia or Alzheimer's disease,
09:14
but what you're going to do
is you're going to create
09:17
the strongest, biggest hippocampus
and prefrontal cortex
09:19
so it takes longer for these diseases
to actually have an effect.
09:22
You can think of exercise, therefore,
09:27
as a supercharged 401K for your brain, OK?
09:30
And it's even better, because it's free.
09:35
So this is the point in the talk
where everybody says,
09:39
"That sounds so interesting, Wendy,
09:42
but I really will only
want to know one thing.
09:44
And that is, just tell me
the minimum amount of exercise
09:47
I need to get all these changes."
09:51
(Laughter)
09:53
And so I'm going to tell you
the answer to that question.
09:54
First, good news: you don't have to become
a triathlete to get these effects.
09:57
The rule of thumb is you want to get
three to four times a week exercise
10:01
minimum 30 minutes an exercise session,
10:06
and you want to get aerobic exercise in.
10:09
That is, get your heart rate up.
10:12
And the good news is,
you don't have to go to the gym
10:14
to get a very expensive gym membership.
10:16
Add an extra walk around the block
in your power walk.
10:18
You see stairs -- take stairs.
10:22
And power-vacuuming can be as good
as the aerobics class
10:24
that you were going to take at the gym.
10:29
So I've gone from memory pioneer
10:31
to exercise explorer.
10:35
From going into the innermost
workings of the brain,
10:37
to trying to understand how exercise
can improve our brain function,
10:41
and my goal in my lab right now
10:45
is to go beyond that rule of thumb
that I just gave you --
10:48
three to four times a week, 30 minutes.
10:51
I want to understand
the optimum exercise prescription
10:53
for you, at your age,
at your fitness level,
10:58
for your genetic background,
11:02
to maximize the effects of exercise today
11:04
and also to improve your brain
and protect your brain the best
11:08
for the rest of your life.
11:13
But it's one thing to talk about exercise,
and it's another to do it.
11:15
So I'm going to invoke my power
as a certified exercise instructor,
11:19
to ask you all to stand up.
11:23
(Laughter)
11:25
We're going to do
just one minute of exercise.
11:27
It's call-and-response,
just do what I do, say what I say,
11:29
and make sure you don't punch
your neighbor, OK?
11:32
Music!
11:36
(Upbeat music)
11:37
Five, six, seven, eight,
it's right, left, right, left.
11:38
And I say, I am strong now.
11:43
Let's hear you.
11:48
Audience: I am strong now.
11:49
Wendy Suzuki: Ladies,
I am Wonder Woman-strong.
11:52
Let's hear you!
11:56
Audience: I am Wonder Woman-strong.
11:57
WS: New move -- uppercut, right and left.
12:00
I am inspired now. You say it!
12:02
Audience: I am inspired now.
12:06
WS: Last move -- pull it down,
right and left, right and left.
12:10
I say, I am on fire now! You say it.
12:14
Audience: I am on fire now.
12:18
WS: And done! OK, good job!
12:22
(Applause)
12:24
Thank you.
12:30
I want to leave you with one last thought.
12:31
And that is, bringing
exercise in your life
12:34
will not only give you
a happier, more protective life today,
12:37
but it will protect your brain
from incurable diseases.
12:42
And in this way it will change
the trajectory of your life
12:47
for the better.
12:52
Thank you very much.
12:53
(Applause)
12:55
Thank you.
12:58
(Applause)
12:59

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About the speaker:

Wendy Suzuki - Neuroscientist, author
Wendy Suzuki is researching the science behind the extraordinary, life-changing effects that physical activity can have on the most important organ in your body: your brain.

Why you should listen

Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, an author, storyteller and fitness instructor. She received her undergraduate degree in physiology and human anatomy at the University of California, Berkeley in 1987 studying with Prof. Marion C. Diamond, a leader in the field of brain plasticity. She went on to earn her PhDin Neuroscience from U.C. San Diego in 1993 and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health before accepting her faculty position at New York University in 1998.

Suzuki's major research interest continues to be brain plasticity. She is best known for her extensive work studying areas in the brain critical for our ability to form and retain new long-term memories. More recently, her work has focused on understanding how aerobic exercise can be used to improve learning, memory and higher cognitive abilities in humans. She is passionate about teaching, about exercise (intenSati) and about supporting and mentoring up and coming scientists.

More profile about the speaker
Wendy Suzuki | Speaker | TED.com