There are two major parts of the brain that physical activity affects the most. The first one is called the prefrontal cortex, right behind your forehead, critical for things like decision-making, focus, attention, and your personality. The second key area is the hippocampus, critical for your ability to form and retain new long-term memories of facts and events.
Scientists have been puzzled for many years by the question of what connection exists between physical activity and brain development if any. You’re about to get a piece of first-hand information that reveals this connection and its positive effects on your brain. I found out that stories are very useful for communicating information and this particular knowledge is crucial. So, let me share a short story that will take us into this amazing discovery.
Some years back, a neuroscientist was studying the brain – the most complex structure known to man. As a professor of neuroscience, her research goal was to discover the power locked within the hippocampus (memory center) of the brain, located in the temporal lobe (around where your ears are). She was trying to understand how an event that lasts just a moment, such as your first kiss, or the first words of your baby, can create a memory that lasts a lifetime.
The plan was to measure the activity of individual brain cells in the hippocampus as her subjects were forming new memories. She was at the height of this memory research with lots of data pouring in, and she was getting noticed in her field. That’s a wonderful thing, right? It’s the dream of every scientist. However, she stuck her head out through the door of her lab one day, and she observed something. She had no social life. After spending so much time listening to those brain cells in a dark room, all by herself, not moving her body at all, she had gained 25 pounds. Regardless of all the great things she had achieved in her work, she was miserable without realizing it for many years. She needed to do something about it and fast.
So, she went on a river-rafting trip by herself since she had no social life. While on that trip, she felt like the weakest person, with very little energy. Fortunately, she returned from the trip with a mission to never feel that way on a river-rafting trip again. That decision pushed her into the gym, focusing her type-A personality on taking all the exercise classes – kickboxing, dancing, yoga, and step classes. As you would expect, it was hard at first, but she noticed that after every sweat-inducing workout she tried, the result was a great mood and energy boost, which kept her going back to the gym. She started feeling stronger and better. She soon got rid of those 25 pounds.
After about eighteen months into her regular exercise program, she observed something that made her sit up and take notice. She was sitting at her desk, writing a research grant, and a strange thought went through her mind. She thought, “Gee, grant-writing is going well today.” All her fellow scientists always find it funny when she says that because grant-writing can be very frustrating. Coming up with a million-dollar-winning idea is quite difficult.
She realized that the grant-writing was going well because she was able to focus and maintain her attention for longer than she used to, and her long-term memory — what she was studying initially — seemed to have gotten better. That was when she put it all together. She had inadvertently conducted an experiment using herself as the test subject. She had discovered the powerful effects of physical activity on the brain. She realized that simply moving our bodies has immediate, long-lasting, and protective benefits for our brains; effects that can last for the rest of our lives.
All the exercise she had added to her life was changing her brain. So, as a curious neuroscientist, she went in search of the available literature regarding her discovery to see what she would find about the effects of exercise on the brain. What she found was exciting and growing literature that was essentially showing everything that she noticed in herself. Better mood, better energy, better memory, better attention.
These amazing brain-changing effects she experienced prompted her to make a decision that is quite unusual in science. Being a full professor of neuroscience, she decided to completely switch her research program, studying the effects of physical activity on the brain. So now, after several years of really focusing on this question, she concluded that exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today for the following three reasons:
- It has immediate effects on your brain. A single workout that you do will immediately increase levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline that will improve your mood right after that workout; exactly what she was feeling. Her lab results showed that a single workout can improve your ability to shift and focus attention, which lasts for at least two hours.
- Studies have shown that a single workout will improve your reaction times which means that you are going to be faster at catching that cup of coffee that falls off the desk, which is very, very important. These effects are long-lasting because exercise changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology, and function.
- Exercise produces brand new brain cells in the hippocampus, which increase its volume, as well as improve your long-term memory.
I am sure you would like to know the minimum amount of exercise you need to get all these changes. Professor Wendy Suzuki, the neuroscientist in our story, has the answer.
Good news. You don’t have to become a triathlete to get these effects. The rule of thumb is you want to exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes per session, three to four times a week, and you want to also get aerobic exercise in. That is, get your heart rate up. Another great news is that 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. Take the stairs when you see one. Power-vacuuming can be as good as the aerobics class that you were going to take at the gym.
The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in aging. With increased exercise over your lifetime, you’re not going to cure dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but what you will do is create the strongest, biggest hippocampus and prefrontal cortex so it takes longer for these diseases to have an effect.
In conclusion, bringing exercise into your life will not only give you a happier and more productive life today but also protect your brain from incurable diseases. This way, it will change the trajectory of your life for the better.
The Brain-changing Benefits of Exercise – TED Talk by Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Join our mailing list to receive the latest insights and updates.