Last week I was incredibly inspired by a TED talk that spoke about the way that exercise can change your life. I knew that exercise was very beneficial for physical and mental health but I had no idea just how great an impact it has.
The talk was presented by Wendy Suzuki. Wendy is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. She began her presentation by telling the audience about a time in her life when her research was everything. She had no social life and had gained 25 pounds. It took her a long time to realise that she was actually miserable. As a way of getting away she decided to go on a river-rafting trip. Wendy said that she was the “weakest” person on her trip and never wanted to feel like the weakest one again. Upon her return Wendy started exercising. She tried all the different exercise classes at the gym and absolutely fell in love with it. Not long after she started exercising, she noticed that she was able to focus and maintain her attention at work for longer than she ever had before.
Being a curious neuroscientist, Wendy decided to do some research about exercise and what impact it has on the brain. Better mood, better energy, better memory and better attention were among the many benefits. This made her completely shift her research focus to how exercise can actually transform your brain.
Every single thing that you do for yourself is an act of self-love, or self-hate. Exercise is self-love. And loving the self is the key to success in just about every aspect of your life. – Louise Hay.
Before I get into the brain transformation I want to share with you some of the immediate effects exercise has on your brain. Straight after you exercise your levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline increase. This will provide you with better mood and improve your ability to shift your focus from one thing to another. These effects can last for up to two hours. Studies have also demonstrated that a single workout can actually improve your reaction times, isn’t that amazing. Unfortunately, these immediate effects are only transient. In order to get the brain transforming benefits you have to change your exercise regime and increase your cardiorespiratory function.
Now I’m not going to go all ‘scientist’ on you but I am going to describe to you just what parts of the brain Wendy has found that can be transformed. First is your prefrontal cortex, which is located right behind your forehead. This is the part of your brain that is responsible for decision-making, focus, attention and your personality. The second part of the brain is the hippocampus, which is critical for your ability to form and retain new long-term memories for facts and events. The hippocampus is what allows us remember an event that lasts for a single moment for the rest of our lives, like our first kiss.
Here are the three key findings in neuroscience research today on the long-term effects of exercise:
Improved attention and focus (coming from your prefrontal cortex).
The production of brand new brain cells in the hippocampus. This increases the volume of the hippocampus as well as improves your long-term memory.
Those immediate effects of mood that come from exercise start to last for a long time. This gives you long-lasting increases in the good mood neurotransmitters.
When you’re exercising you are not only moving your arms and legs, your brain is getting a workout too. The more you exercise the bigger and stronger your prefrontal cortex and your hippocampus gets. These two areas of your brain are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in aging. This means that exercising consistently over the course of your lifetime will create the strongest, biggest hippocampus and prefrontal cortex that can actually delay the onset of diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
Simply moving your body, has immediate, long-lasting and protective benefits for your brain. And that can last for the rest of your life. – Wendy Suzuki
Now you’re probably wondering what kind of exercise and how much of it you should be doing in order to get all these amazing benefits. Thankfully Wendy was not suggesting that we all quit our day jobs and move into the gym. All we have to do is 30 minutes of aerobic exercise four times a week. Aerobic exercise is moderate-intensity physical activity that can be sustained for more than a couple of minutes. The aim of it is to get your heart rate up.
The good news is you don't have to go to the gym to get a very expensive gym membership. Add an extra walk around the block in your power walk. You see stairs, take stairs. And power-vacuuming can be as good as the aerobics class that you were going to take at the gym. – Wendy Suzuki
I am a person that has to exercise. I am the most irritable person if I have not moved my body in some way. During exam week people thought I was nuts getting up at five o'clock so that I could get a gym session in before my exam. I knew that I would not be able to remain focused in that exam if I had not exercised.
This morning I woke up and immediately started writing this post (after food of course #priorities). I was a mess. I could not focus on what I was doing. I was distracted and I was so irritable. I decided to give writing a break and go to the gym. I like to keep my sessions nice and short. I was in and out of there within the hour. When I returned home I had something to eat and sat back down with my laptop. All I can say is WOW. I could actually concentrate on what I was doing and smashed out this piece in an hour. I found it quite ironic that the very thing I was writing about was actually the cure for my lack of focus.
I am going to leave you with my top five types of aerobic exercise that I love to do:
1. Walking: This is definitely one of my favourite types of exercise because I can talk and do it at the same time. Get a friend or your mum and make a commitment to wake up 30 minutes earlier for a brisk walk. It will transform your mood for the whole day. Tip: Going up hills really helps to increase my heart rate.
2. Cycling: I went through a phase when I became OBSESSED with spin classes at my gym. If you put me on a bike on the road I would probably fall off but in the gym I love it. The instructor gets the music going and you ride along to the tunes next to your friends (or chill in the back corner and sing alone alone like me). Spin classes are also great because the instructor will tell you when to shift your gears to go up an imaginary hill and when to cool down so that you get the most out of your workout.
3. Aerobic or ‘cardio’ classes: When I first started going to the gym these classes were my savior. There are so many different classes you can try so it is really hard to get bored of them. 'Step' is by far my absolute favourite class. The first step class I attended would have definitely made great content for 'Funniest Home Videos.' I was so uncoordinated and falling all over the place. But I persisted and kept going. Sure on odd occasion I will trip over my own feet but it is all part of the fun.
4. HIIT training: This is my current obsession. I can’t seem to get enough of it. I really didn’t like it in the beginning because it was very start and stop. After a couple of sessions I understood how it all worked and now I just love it. The best part about HIIT training is that it usually only goes for half an hour. It works in time intervals. For example, you will do an exercise for 45 seconds and then have a 15 second break. There are so many different HIIT workouts available online and on YouTube. Some fitness centers such as F45 are completely based around this style of training if you would rather have an instructor.
5. Dancing: I won’t lie, I don’t walk into the gym to have a dance (as much as I would love to some days) BUT I do this all the time at home. When I have music on while I’m cooking or in the bathroom I am always singing and dancing. I absolutely love dancing with my sister. She is so much fun and if we are out we will never leave the dancefloor.
If you happen to have 30 minutes free today maybe have a think about going for a walk, vacuuming your house aerobic style or doing a few star jumps on the spot. Make the choice to move your body, the benefits speak for themselves!
Bringing exercise in your life will not only give you a happier, more protective life today, but it will protect your brain from incurable diseases. And in this way it will change the trajectory of your life for the better. – Wendy Suzuki
Here is a link to Wendy's TED talk if you want to check it out: https://www.ted.com/talks/wendy_suzuki_the_brain_changing_benefits_of_exercise#t-202094