Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better (2016)

CHUNKY NO MORE:
Reconnecting My Brain with My Body and Spirit

There is often a defining moment in people’s lives that makes them decide to change their habits and routines and get fit. A health scare, a class reunion, a particularly unflattering picture—any of these things might do the trick. I was sick and tired of being overweight, but I had only ever made half-hearted attempts to change my sedentary, foodie ways. It wasn’t until I was on a white-water rafting trip in South America that I had the realization that gave me the motivation I needed to start the process of getting in shape.

A RIVER-RAFTING WAKE-UP CALL

It was in July 2002, and we were at the end of another gorgeous day on the mighty Cotahuasi River in central Peru. Mark, our fearless guide, was steering our raft. I was part of a group of fun-loving fellow adventure travelers, including a bunch of triathletes from northern California, a father–daughter pair, a river-loving husband-and-wife team, and Cea Higgins, a super-cool surfer and mother of two who became my rafting partner for the trip. I had come on this trip on my own searching for a little adventure and to get away from the relentless grind of science. We were all whizzing down the class-five river in the deepest canyon in the world surrounded by steep cliffs full of craggy gray rock formations. This trip was the latest in a series of adventure travel vacations that I had taken over the past few years, including a kayaking trip in Crete and another river-rafting trip down the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe the year before. I might have been living the life of a cloistered lab rat in New York City, but I made a point once a year to indulge the world traveler in me and let my hair down as far away from the hustle and bustle of New York City as I could. For me, white-water river rafting or kayaking in exotic places did the trick.

Even before we got on the river, this Peruvian adventure started with a six-hour bus trip from the airport at Arequipa, Peru, to the tiny town where we stayed overnight in a very rustic hotel before what was described to us as a “brutal” ten-hour hike on the actual Inca trail to where our boats were moored on the Cotahuasi River. I will never forget the ice-cold shower (adventure travel vacations don’t always come with hot water it seems) I took the morning before we all set out, mules in tow, on the hike. It was a bright and glorious day, and with our constant chitchatting as we got to know each other, even the long hike was over before we knew it. We were all tired by the end but were happy to have found our way to our floating caravan of rafts securely tied to the bank of the river. I remember thinking that the way those rafts were bouncing up and down on the water, it looked as if they were as eager as we were to finally explore the river.

Each evening after a long day of rafting, our guides chose a campsite somewhere on the banks of the river. Each night in camp, our first job was to get all the camping equipment and all our personal bags up from the supply rafts to the campsite. To do this, we formed a human “fire line” and handed each bag or piece of equipment from one person to the next until it reached camp. Our fire line sometimes went up a steep incline from the river’s edge.

It was that first night, standing somewhere in the middle of the line, that I received my personal, undisputed, loud and clear fitness wake-up call. Why? Because that night in the fire line was when I appreciated how truly pitiful my upper body strength was. At that time, I had several years of regular yoga under my belt that had shifted my totally inflexible body into a somewhat less inflexible body, but I had done virtually no strength or aerobic training and it showed. I now found myself the weakest link in our human chain. Not only was the sixteen-year-old girl there with her father much stronger than I was but there were sixty-five-plus-year-olds who blew me out of the water in terms of strength. Of course, my fellow river rafters never let the large packs being passed up to camp crush me like a bug. Instead, two fellow rafters got on either side of me and essentially passed the heaviest packs to each other while making it look like I was helping, thankfully allowing me to save face.

I was mortified. I literally could not pull my own weight.

That fact drove home a searing kind of shame: I was young, healthy, and able. Why could I not keep up with my fellow adventure travelers?

It was that night in the fire line that I made myself a promise: I was going to get in shape—get strong and healthy, nimble and quick—as soon as I got back to New York.

FIT, FAT, AND FEARFUL

True to my promise to myself on the river, two days after I returned from my rafting adventure, I marched myself down to a brand-new Equinox Fitness club that had opened up not too far from my lab. This gym was beautiful and had everything—a big facility with yoga and Pilates studios, workout rooms, personal trainers, fancy locker rooms, a sauna, and a pool. And it was only a fifteen-minute walk from work. It was perfect! I signed up immediately. The membership adviser sold me on trying out a personal trainer because a free training session came with my new membership package. I was determined to do this right so I marched straight up to the board on the wall with all the trainer profiles and carefully tried to choose the one who looked like he or she could get me into shape the fastest. Five days later, I had my first session with my new personal trainer, Carrie Newport.

Carrie was a relatively new trainer at the gym looking to build up her clientele. Turns out, she was the perfect trainer for me. Always bubbling over with information from the latest personal training seminar, she was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, creative in her workout design, and well organized. It was so much fun to train with her two to three times a week. The best part was that I quickly started to see results in both the increased weights I could handle and the higher number of reps I was able to complete in our sessions as well as in the shape of my body. Muscle mass grows if you work out regularly and if you push yourself hard. To supplement my training sessions with Carrie, I started taking advantage of the great fitness classes at the gym too. They had especially good dance teachers (there are so many fantastic dancers in New York and we get them as teachers in the gyms), and I also enjoyed the cardio, strength-training, and step aerobics classes. I tried them all!

When I look back on this time, I realize how many old habits I broke and how many new habits I established in one fell swoop as soon as I got back from that trip to Peru. All the books on breaking habits say it’s so difficult to do because habitual behavior is ingrained and unconscious and therefore very difficult to change. But my sudden change from non–gym goer to regular gym goer didn’t seem hard to me at all. Why? The first key factor was that I really had a profound revelation that night on the banks of the Cotahuasi River. That realization opened my eyes for the first time about my fitness level, and I was determined not to again be the weakest one on any future trip, which completely shifted my motivation to work out. The second key factor that was critical is that on top of the expensive gym membership, I hired a regular trainer to work with me one on one two or three times a week. I like to get my money’s worth, and that kept me extra motivated to get the most out of each personal training session. It was really Carrie who got me over the hump and helped jump-start my new habit of going to the gym on a regular basis. Her style of combining copious amounts of positive feedback and encouragement with fun and varied workouts along with a bubbly personality made the workouts so enjoyable—I loved them. The last key factor during the first year or year and a half after Peru was that I quickly started to see the fruits of my labor in terms of clear increases in my strength and changes in my body. That motivation alone was powerful enough to keep me going to my regular sessions with Carrie with no problem at all.

After the initial eighteen months of weight training and cardio with Carrie, I had reached my first fitness goal. I was much stronger and was ready to haul huge pieces of equipment on any fire line I might be asked to join. I had a much higher aerobic capacity and was ready to take any cardio fitness test Carrie could throw at me. I had also become a regular and enthusiastic gym goer; you could set your watch by my regular visits to the club, and I was on my way to becoming a bona fide gym rat.

But, despite all these positive changes, that still did not mean I was totally fit. While I was significantly stronger in 2004 than I had been in 2002, the truth was that I was still overweight and had even started to gain more weight in 2004. There were two main reasons for that. The first obvious reason was my eating habits. I was still indulging in great restaurants and the best take-out I could find in the city. My regular visits to the vending machine on the first floor of the building (better to hide my terrible habit from the people in my lab and in my department who had their offices on the eighth and eleventh floors), where I indulged in a Twix bar, my very favorite candy bar, before most every workout. That combination of chewy caramel together with a crunchy cookie on the bottom all covered in chocolate was irresistible and made me feel like I was gathering my strength and energy for my upcoming workout with Carrie. So while I was much stronger and firmer, I was still carrying too much weight on my five-foot, four-inch frame.

I started to realize that I needed to pay attention to what and how much I ate even beyond my Twix bar habit. It was the height of the Atkins and South Beach diet crazes, and this got me thinking about how many carbs I consumed every day—in fact at all meals, all day long. For example, I loved to make my own waffles for breakfast in the morning and eat those freshly made waffles with butter and syrup. Not just Sunday mornings, but every morning. I could make the fastest and most delicious fresh homemade waffles in the city, and they immediately went from my plate to my hips. When I got tired of waffles, I would go out and find a wonderful hunk of peasant, walnut, or date bread and toast and butter that for breakfast. You can’t imagine the number of amazing bakeries in New York, with bread so much better than any bread I ever had in California or Washington, D.C. Yum! Lunch was often a sandwich on good bread, and dinner came from a fantastic array of restaurants (lots of pasta included) or take-out in my Greenwich Village neighborhood. One of my very favorite meals was bulgogi, a Korean barbecued beef dish with noodles from a fantastic pan-Asian restaurant in Soho. The dish could have easily fed two or three people. I ate the whole thing myself for dinner with a side serving of rice to sop up all that delicious sauce—heavenly! With this kind of eating lifestyle, it was no wonder I ended up at least twenty pounds overweight despite my regular gym habit.

Fit, fat, and fearful. Those were the three words that best described Wendy Suzuki in 2004. The “fearful” part was mainly due to another major factor affecting my life at that point. I was smack dab in the middle of that inevitable trial by fire for academics: winning tenure. Here is a Cliffs Notes version for the uninitiated. First, you are lucky enough to be hired by a big fancy research university that gives you a shiny new lab and a pot of money that is just big enough to get your groundbreaking neuroscience research going but not enough to sustain it for more than a couple of years at the most. This happened in 1998 for me. As soon as you arrive in your new home, you immediately start setting up your brand-new lab and at the same time you start madly writing as many grants as you possibly can to increase your chance of being funded so your lab doesn’t fold after just a couple of years when your startup funds run out. Oh, and at the same time you also have to start teaching classes, mentoring graduate students, and hiring technical staff, most of which you have not done much of before because you were too busy doing the science experiments that got you the job.

From the time you are hired, you typically have six years to show your stuff in terms of hard-core research publications in peer-reviewed journals, teaching, and mentorship, though at major research institutions it’s the research productivity measured in terms of high-profile publications that your senior colleagues (the ones who vote on your tenure) are really interested in. That means you have only six years to fund your lab (using hard-to-get big-government grants for which you are competing with Nobel Prize winners), get your experiments working, and find something really earth-shatteringly interesting to publish to great acclaim. Sometimes it takes years to simply set up a lab, depending on the kind of experiments you plan to do. Of course, mine were the kind that needed a lot of setup.

If that pressure doesn’t sound intense enough, the worst part of the process is that no matter how many papers you publish or great classes you teach, you are never 100 percent sure if you have done enough to earn that lofty status of tenure. Inevitably you start hearing about the exceptions. As in, this superstar neuroscientist from a prestigious university who mysteriously did not get tenure and nobody quite knows why. You’ll hear, “He was clearly an exception; you will do fine.” And you immediately think, “What if I’m one of those exceptions too?”

I fully admit that I was an anxious, agonizing, agitated, and stressed-out assistant professor trying my best to make tenure in 2004. I was working for what I hoped would be a spectacular result from a challenging experiment that took several years to develop. In the end, it worked out fine, but I had many a sleepless night worrying about the speed at which my research was progressing and how interesting my findings would be to my peers.

I waited until after that positive tenure decision came down to really dig my heels in and tackle those excess twenty pounds with better control of my food portions and a drastic reduction of carbs in my diet. While my motivation to get fit was my Peruvian river-rafting adventure, my motivation to lose weight was that picture of me with my parents at the Troland Research Award ceremony in Washington. In 2004, I was plenty fit, but my outside body didn’t reflect my inner strength, and that just didn’t feel right. Inspired by how my body had immediately responded to my strength training and cardio routine as designed by Carrie, I decided I was going to tackle my food issues solo. How hard could it be?

I started by planning all my meals and took careful note of my portion sizes. I researched fun and easy recipes to cook to adhere to my new diet and significantly decreased my take-out and restaurant going, except for special occasions. The cooking part was fun, but the biggest challenge was to get comfortable with a feeling of hunger—all the time. I hated it. I especially hated it late in the afternoon just past the midway point between lunch and dinner, when I would start thinking about heading down to the vending machine to get that crispy, gooey Twix bar. I got grumpy. I got cranky. I could not concentrate well and started to tell myself that eating a sugary snack was okay because it would make me more productive at work, and I needed to be maximally productive at work. But I had set my food rules, and I muscled through.

This was particularly hard because my weight loss seemed to go so much slower than my muscle buildup. It took many weeks to start to see an effect on the scale. But there were results—slow but steady. When I saw those first two or three pounds disappear from the scale, I felt newly motivated. That made me realize that the feeling of being hungry that I hated so much was actually good and it translated to results, however slowly. That hungry feeling was also helping me change my body’s set point for food intake, for the better. What do I mean by that? It probably took me years to get myself to the level of food intake that my body needed to feel satisfied, without overeating. I realized my diet was too high in calories and too full of carbs, without enough veggies or fruits. I knew it was going to take time and some determination to slowly ramp down as I started to gradually change the composition of what I ate every day. I got more creative with my cooking, looking up healthful low-carb recipes online, and the truth was, with my new focus on more nutritious cooking, I didn’t even miss my old unhealthy take-out regime. My trainer had shown me that I could strengthen my body with regular smart workouts. Now I was learning how to get my eating, and therefore my weight, back in control with the same kind of slow, steady, and smart food choice changes.

EXPLORING THE FOOD SET POINT IN . . . MY CAT

Experiencing hunger but then seeing the number on my scale go down as my own eating set point changed had another unexpected positive benefit—with my overweight cat, Pepper. Pepper has no brakes on his brain’s hunger center but his brother, Dill, before he passed away, was always very thin and a picky eater. To make sure Dill ate enough, I would leave food out all the time. I was so worried about Dill getting what he needed that I didn’t notice Pepper’s expanding middle until friends started commenting on the size of my cat! Well, I realized, a little too late, that Pepper (like his human, just a few years before) was in great need of a diet, and I knew what I had to do. I put him on a very regimented (and vet-approved) low-calorie diet on which he got fed only twice a day with special low-calorie cat food. He was uncomfortable at first. Very uncomfortable. He was so hungry, he would start running around like a mad man before mealtimes, but I knew from the vet that he was getting proper nutrition, and his body just had to get used to this amount of food, and then his brain would settle down. Like me, he had to change his set point. I didn’t waiver and just kept to his feeding schedule for weeks and weeks. I could see not only his waistline slowly whittle but his set point shift as well. Early on he would inhale his food and lick the empty bowl. Now, for example, he leaves about a third of the food for a snack later. He always finishes, but he can now spread out his eating in a leisurely way. I sometimes wished someone would just feed me the prescribed amount at the prescribed time too. The greatest thing to see was Pepper’s energy skyrocket (just like mine did) when that massive waistline started to get smaller. He still runs around the apartment—but for fun now, not because he is crazy hungry.

I remember the day I went to a jazz dance class and a guy whom I danced with pretty regularly for at least a year but had not seen for a few months did a double take when I walked in. He said he hardly recognized me because of my weight loss. That right there was all I needed to hear to know that all those months of that hungry feeling were totally worth it. Talk about immediate gratification. I was ecstatic! Over about a year of combining my new diet with my regular gym workouts (by this time I had graduated from Carrie’s care and did my own workouts, mainly focusing on different classes at the gym) I ended up losing a total of twenty-three pounds. Woo-hoo!

That should have been enough, right? Plenty even. But there was something even more in store for me.

DISCOVERING A WORKOUT WITH A MESSAGE

During one of my regular evening sessions at the gym when I had already attained most of my weight-loss goal, the list of possible classes caught my eye. I had a choice that evening between a cardio boot camp class and another class that I had never heard of called intenSati—with no explanation for what intenSati meant. I was not feeling all that energetic, and the cardio boot camp class just sounded too hard. So that’s how I ended up walking into my first intenSati class. Little did I know that this class was not only harder than cardio boot camp but would be the catalyst for upping the level of my workouts, improving my mood and my outlook on life, and eventually even shifting my neuroscience research.

At the beginning of that class, the instructor, Patricia Moreno, the woman who created this class, told us that the term intenSati, comes from the combination of two words. Inten comes from the word intention. Sati is a Pali word (a language from India) that means “awareness or mindfulness.” She told us that the goal of the practice of intenSati is to bring an awareness/mindfulness to our own intentions. She explained that we were going to be doing different movements from kickboxing, dance, yoga, and the martial arts, all the time shouting positive affirmations along with each move. I was not so sure about the shouting part, but Moreno was a completely riveting instructor so I stayed to experience this intriguing new class for myself.

That first class felt like an explosion of movements. Moreno started off showing us a simple yet energetic movement, such as alternating left and right punches. Once we got the movement down, she would then give us the affirmations that we would shout out along with that move. For example, with the punches, we said out loud, “I am strong now!” This move was called Strong. Each move had a specific name. We would do the first movement for a while, and then she would add a movement/affirmation combo, until we had strung fifteen or twenty different movements and affirmations together. Each particular set of affirmation/movement combos was written as a series with a specific message. The message was one of empowerment: The power of your mind, the power of positive action, the power of your body, and the power of positive thoughts over negative ones. It was a workout with a message.

Moreno told us that what we declare with our voices is powerful. And that when we start incorporating these powerful affirmations into our thoughts—that is, when we start to think and believe them—they become even more powerful still.

When we pushed our arms up in the air in an alternating fashion with our palms open and our fingers spread wide, we shouted, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

When we punched up and down, we shouted, “I believe I will succeed!”

When we threw uppercut punches with alternating hands, we shouted, “I am inspired now!”

It was a workout for my body and my brain. Asking your brain to remember arm and foot work combinations, as well as affirmations to shout out, is asking your brain to work! There are also the words of the affirmations that the instructor is telling you, which you are also trying to remember—even before she says them. So your memory is also put to the test in an intenSati class.

Of course, I didn’t appreciate all of the brain–body connections being made by intenSati after just one class. I was trying hard just to keep up and remember the movements—never mind remembering the affirmations at the same time! And it was hard. Shouting those affirmations while doing all the moves made you more out of breath than just doing the movements alone and upped the level of the workout considerably. I was also definitely a little shy at first about shouting out the affirmations. But there were plenty of regulars in class that night shouting with abandon, and once I managed to get the movements down, I got caught up in the fun and started shouting along with everyone else.

Have you heard people say that people won’t remember what you say, only how you made them feel? I can’t remember the exact affirmations that I said that night in class, but I do remember how I felt: totally empowered, energized, and enlivened—in a brand-new way. And I could not wait to come back for the next class.

HARNESSING THE POWER OF THE BRAIN–BODY CONNECTION

What was so different about this workout? Remember, I was already in good if not great shape by the time I wandered into this class. I was really starting to feel great about both my overall cardiovascular and muscular strength as well as the outside package after I lost the weight. I loved going to the gym and had already made it a regular part of my life. I was already feeling great and energized and was sure that my workouts helped me through those stress-filled years as I was applying for tenure, but intenSati brought something brand new into my life. I would not have been able to articulate it at first, but I now realize that this workout was so special because it brought the power of the brain–body connection to life for me more powerfully than I had ever felt it before.

The first thing I noticed was that I pushed myself during those workouts more than I had in any other class I was taking. Why? It was the power of those positive affirmations and actually speaking them out loud that seemed to flip a switch in me. It was the difference between doing a class and getting a good, sweat-inducing workout and really feeling strong because I was declaring I was strong or empowered or confident or a million other positive affirmations we used in that class. I was pushing myself even harder because I started to really believe I was strong. And I started to really feel that strength, embodying it not just during class but also long after class ended, when I went back into the real world.

But this is where the power of the brain–body connection comes into play. This connection refers to the idea that the body has a powerful influence on our brain functions and conversely that the brain has a powerful influence over how our bodies feel and work and heal. While I had been going to the gym for some time, and I definitely felt much more fit and energized and happy, I really started to appreciate the true power of the brain–body connection only with this new class. And the first thing I noticed was how strongly this workout (body) boosted my mood (brain).

From a neurobiological perspective, we know the most about the brain basis of mood from situations in which mood is altered—namely from the study of depression, one of the most common psychiatric conditions in first world countries like the United States. From studies of abnormal mood states, we know mood is determined by a widespread and interconnected group of brain structures together with interconnected levels of a set of well-studied neurotransmitters and growth factors. We talked about the role of the hippocampus in memory, and recent studies have shown that its normal functioning is also involved in mood. In addition, the amygdala, important for processing and responding to emotional stimuli, and the prefrontal cortex are both implicated in regulating our mood states. Furthermore, two other systems, which I describe in greater detail in later chapters—the autonomic nervous system including the hypothalamus (Chapter 7) and the reward circuit (Chapter 8)—are involved in regulating our mood. We also know that the appropriate levels of particular neurotransmitters are important for regulating mood. An influential theory of depression is that it is caused by a depletion of a category of neurotransmitters called monoamines. These include serotonin, whose low levels most of us associate with depression, but lowered levels of norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter, as well as dopamine are found in the brains of patients with depression. Therefore, the studies suggest that if you boost the levels of these neurotransmitters, you can boost mood.

Well, little did I know but I was getting a triple whammy of mood-boosting power with the intenSati workout. First, many studies have shown that not only does aerobic exercise improve measures of mood in subjects both with depression and without but that exercise boosts levels of the three key monoamines we know play a key role in mood: serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. Besides these classic mood-associated neurotransmitters, exercise also increases levels of endorphins in the brain. Endorphin literally means “endogenous (made in the body) morphine.” It is a kind of morphine that has the ability to dull pain and provide feelings of euphoria. Endorphins are secreted by the brain’s pituitary gland into the blood, where they can affect cells throughout the brain that have specific receptors for them. Because endorphins are secreted into the bloodstream, they are categorized as a hormone; neurotransmitters, on the other hand, are released at synapses from the axon of the cells that synthesize them.

While most of us assume that endorphins are responsible for all or most of the high associated with some forms of exercise, the story is not as clear as all that. In fact, for many years there was a huge controversy in the neuroscience community (invisible to the popular press) over whether endorphins had anything to do at all with the so-called runner’s high. This was because, while there was good evidence that the level of endorphins increased in the peripheral bloodstream (that is, the bloodstream that courses through the body), it was not clear if exercise changed the level of endorphins in the brain, which is where they had to be working to produce the runner’s high. Only recently has a group in Germany provided evidence that running does activate the endorphin system in human brains and that the more profound the reported runner’s high, the stronger the activation. So neuroscience shows that a range of different neurotransmitters associated with mood and/or euphoria are increased with exercise and are likely causing at least part of the party mood caused by exercise.

The second mood-boosting whammy from intenSati comes from the spoken affirmations that are such a prominent part of this workout. A relatively large body of psychology experiments has shown that self-affirmations like the ones we were shouting to the rooftops in class help buffer people from a whole variety of different stressors, including peer-based classroom stress, rumination associated with negative feedback, and stress associated with social evaluation. One recent study reported that positive self-affirmations significantly improved mood in people with high self-esteem. We don’t know the brain and neurochemical changes associated with self-affirmations, but the behavioral evidence is quite clear that positive affirmations boost mood.

The third mood-boosting whammy of intenSati comes from the fact that during class, the physical moves that we perform are very strong and powerful; we are essentially in one power pose after another. The TED talk sensation Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist from Harvard, did a study in which she had some people pose in powerful positions with their arms behind their head and their feet up on a desk (the Obama pose) or with both hands leaning forward on a table in a pose of authority for just one minute and other people pose in nonpowerful positions, like sitting with the legs and arms crossed. The study showed that relative to the nonpowerful posers the power posers had increased levels of testosterone and decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream (after just one minute) as well as increased feelings of power and higher levels of risk tolerance. Indeed, recent studies in rodents confirm that exercise can increase testosterone levels in the blood, but other studies show that higher-intensity aerobic exercise increases circulating cortisol levels. These findings add to our knowledge of the powerful cocktail of brain and blood factors that can shift our mood after exercise.

This was also when I first started to see that while exercise is great for our bodies, when we make exercise both aerobic and mental—meaning you are fully engaged in the movement and/or feel passionately about it—we trigger another very powerful level of the mind-body connection. I call this intentional exercise. The key point is this: While the form of exercise I found in my gym was a fantastic example of intentional exercise, it is not the only one. I realized that you could make any workout intentional simply by bringing your own positive intentions, affirmations, or mantras to the class and focusing on those as you work out. Bring a positive affirmation like “I am sexy” or “I am graceful” to your next Zumba class. Choose a mantra like “I am strong” or “I am powerful” for a cardio/weight-training class or your next run. Adding your own personal affirmation or mantra to your favorite workout will do the same thing as what I experienced in the intenSati class. It will create the same positive feedback loop of affirmations and exercise, leading to good mood, leading to higher motivation, leading to higher levels of exercise, and leading to even better mood. You might need to play around with the kind of exercise you choose to optimize the effect. It has to be one you enjoy and that will allow you to get into the affirmations that really motivate you to do more. Try it out and see what works!

POWERFUL AFFIRMATIONS AND MANTRAS

People often tell me they can’t think of their own affirmations. Here are some to help inspire positive intentions during your own workout:

I am inspired.

I am grateful.

I am sexy.

I am confident.

I am Wonder Woman strong.

I am Superman strong.

My body is healthy.

My brain is beautiful.

I throw away the old and embrace the new.

I expand my comfort zone every day.

I was feeling great, strong, happy, and motivated. I was making a powerful shift. Then I realized this shift in my mood was starting to change deeper things in me. While I thought I had high self-esteem, particularly around my work, I felt my exercise start to shift other parts of my self-esteem that had long been buried at the back of my closet, especially that part that was much more vulnerable in social situations. I looked better than I had in years and was in great shape, and my intentional exercise was starting to work on that negative part of my self-esteem in wonderful ways.

Yes, I had been a regular gym goer for several years by this point; but most of that time, I kept to myself at the gym. I came in, did my workouts with Carrie or in a class, and went home. With the positive effects of the intenSati class taking hold, I started making friends at the gym—maybe not lifelong BFFs, but friends nonetheless. It was quite a step for me because it was the first time I started making very exotic kinds of friends: non-scientists. It turns out, there was a whole world of people at the gym whom I had been standing next to in class for a couple of years; only with the influence of my intentional exercise, however, did I start to come out of my shell and begin talking to them. I met all sorts of new people, from stylists to actors to businesspeople to publicists. I found a new network of people to connect with, not just in the intenSati class but in all the classes I was taking. This new shift in my life started with fitness and weight, but it turns out that even more changes were a comin’.

Another noticeable shift came in a different area of my life: my teaching. Influenced by Marian Diamond and her wonderful teaching abilities, I have always loved and taken great pride in my teaching. I was as devoted to teaching as I was to setting up my lab in those early days as a new assistant professor at NYU, and I always brought great preparation, organization, and enthusiasm, if not a somewhat traditional approach, to the courses that I taught. Inspired by Diamond, I particularly loved teaching neuroanatomy and tried to bring a spark of interest to this rather daunting topic in the best way that I could. My efforts paid off because my teaching evaluations were always very strong.

But I can see now that all the shifts and changes that were happening in my personal life also affected my teaching in a similarly positive way. For example, one of the courses I teach to junior and senior neural science majors is called “Neurophysiology of Memory.” I have students read a series of carefully chosen papers, and we then go through the history of our understanding of how the cells of the hippocampus and related brain areas fire when we are learning or remembering something. I was looking forward to the class, but I wanted to get playful with my teaching; inspired by a class at the gym, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I was taking dance classes that often left me frustrated because I just could not learn the choreography as well as other people in the class. Granted, many of the other students were former or aspiring dancers, so I should not have been so hard on myself, but I was still frustrated. I realized that part of my problem was that I was trying to explicitly memorize the steps that the teacher was showing me using my favorite brain structure, the hippocampus. But then it hit me; I knew motor learning used different brain areas that were nondeclarative or unconscious. Think about it, you don’t have detailed conscious awareness of all the muscles you use for your golf swing. You learn it with practice in an unconscious way.

That was it! That was the answer! I was just using the wrong part of my brain to learn the dance! Now all I had to do was figure out how to use my basal ganglia instead of my hippocampus, and Alvin Ailey, here I come! I did stop trying to memorize the dance moves and just tried to focus on moving my body in the way the teacher was showing and kind of going with the flow, which definitely improved my choreography learning curve noticeably. This was a real breakthrough in my own personal understanding of how memory works. I knew theoretically the differences between the two memory systems, but this was personal, real life, and the realization really helped me dance better in class. I had to try to focus on the right brain system and stop trying to overuse my not-so-great declarative memorization skills.

Even more important, this breakthrough inspired a new lecture session in my “Neurophysiology of Memory” class, which I could not wait to do. The idea was to teach students about the two different learning systems (and the neurophysiological studies that had been done on these two systems), contrasting declarative memory for facts and events with unconscious motor system–based learning (for example, learning the physical movements used to play the piano or tennis). I wanted to give the students the same experience of discovering the difference between the two different types of memory, so I had them learn a dance routine in class. It was a speed-dial version of the discovery I made after many, many dance classes, but I thought I could pull it off.

And I knew exactly the person I wanted to teach that class: my friend Erika Shannon, who had taught me intenSati during my teacher training and who was a sassy, vivacious, and playful dance teacher with a love of hip-hop. I wanted her to come to class and teach a hip-hop routine to my students to illustrate motor learning in the flesh. I remember I was so nervous when I asked her if she would do it. I think I was also a little nervous to do something so different in class. But I just knew the students would love it, and she graciously agreed to teach a routine for me.

I didn’t tell the students what we would be doing but just asked them to wear something comfortable to move in to class. I had all the chairs cleared from the classroom, and they came in to find Shannon at the front, ready to take charge. I explained the premise of the class, and all the students were excited (if not a little trepidatious) to give hip-hop a whirl. The class was a smashing success and generated an enormous amount of discussion about the differences between the hippocampal learning system and the basal ganglia learning system and how one might differentiate the two.

That class happened because I had stepped out of my lab to see what else out there in the world might interest me. Not only that, I felt myself getting bolder, more creative, and more energized about what was possible. It was also an exercise in improving self-awareness for what I needed in my life. But I had more serious challenges directly ahead.

TAKING ON ANOTHER CHALLENGE: DATING IN THE CITY

I had started an avalanche of change in my life. Strength, fitness, weight, even new friends! But the question was, were all those positive affirmations enough to entice me to try my hand at dating? It had been so long since I dated anyone, I’d forgotten how! Or maybe I never learned very well in the first place. And my theory that men were just not that into me was still ringing loud and clear in my ears. What I really needed was an affirmation called “I will date now!” Despite the fact we never said that particular affirmation in class, buoyed by my new gym friendships, I took the big bold step to begin dating in New York City.

Bravely, I decided one day to give online dating a try. I created my profile and was immediately drowning in a sea of totally unappealing options. Were the interested men even telling the truth? What can you really learn from a picture and a few answers to questions like, What was the last book you read?

But I took the plunge. I ended up dating a cute guy in finance. We even went to the same gym, which felt like a positive recommendation in my book. In hindsight, I can see that his energy was really a mask for manic tendencies. While he was great fun to be with in the manic stage, he eventually disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Next!

I put the online dating sites on hold after that experience and moved on. I decided I needed a few moments to catch my breath and that I might have to bring in the big guns. I had read about matchmakers and how they get to know you and prescreen dates for you, choosing from only the men they believe will be a great match. In other words, the matchmaker and not I would be doing the equivalent of sorting through all the profiles of men who take a picture of themselves holding a camera in front of their bathroom mirror with their frayed toothbrush and razor in the shot for all to see. Yes, that was exactly what I needed.

So I googled “Matchmaker NYC” and found one that sounded reasonable, and made an appointment. I found myself in a sterile corporate suite that she clearly rented out for just these kinds of interviews. She seemed to have a wide selection of eligible, highly educated, intelligent men and a reasonable fee so I decided to give her a try.

My first date was with a guy in the banking industry but currently “between jobs.” He suggested we meet for a drink at a bar in Bryant Park and we had a very nice chat in which he impressed me with the books he had read and the people that he met hanging out at this very bar (Malcom Gladwell of Blink fame, for one). This seemed like a good start, and our second date was even more promising because he asked me to come dancing with him at one of the Midsummer Night Swing parties, a yearly event at Lincoln Center. You go an hour early and get a big group dance lesson and then you stay for the live band that plays swing, Lindy hop, or salsa, depending on the week. I was thrilled! I’d been wanting to go to that event for years but had never had a partner to accompany me. I couldn’t wait.

Yet, not everything was Prince Charming perfect. This guy had an annoying habit of pulling out a little comb from his pocket and combing his hair for apparently no reason at all. A nervous trait maybe? And then he kept talking about the fact that he had a car. He talked about how this car was so convenient to get away from all the chaos in the city and how lucky he was to have it.

Hence the nickname I gave him: “Car Boy.”

One day, Car Boy called to invite me on a “car-centric” date. He proposed that we take a drive in his car down to Philly to visit the Barnes museum. I had never been to see this formerly private collection. I love museum visits so I accepted. We were set to meet on a sunny Saturday morning.

I should have realized immediately that something was wrong when a few days before he asked if I could meet him at his place on the West Side at about 10:30 on that Saturday morning. Now, wait a minute. Car Boy is asking me to take the subway across and up town on the morning of our date instead of using his fancy car to come and pick me up? Most women, I realized only now, would have immediately canceled or at least demanded to be picked up in his car, but no, I said to myself, maybe it’s just a kind of New York thing and I made my way on the subway too early on a Saturday morning all the way across town to meet Car Boy and his fancy car.

When I finally arrived at his apartment, Car Boy buzzed me in, and we made our way down to the garage. I must admit the car was beautiful. It was a big Jeep or Range Rover kind of model. It just seemed way too big for a single person to have in the city, but very nice nonetheless. I perked up a little and sat myself down in his big fancy car for the ride down to Philly.

The ride was uneventful and the museum was wonderful, but the more time I spent with him, the more annoyed I got with myself for actually agreeing to tromp all the way over to his house instead of insisting that he pick me up. The more I thought about my mistake, the more I wanted to get out of the car and away from this man. By the end of the excruciatingly long car ride back, where I had nothing to do but sit there in his fancy car and couldn’t think of anything I wanted to talk to him about, I could not get away from Car Boy fast enough. You won’t be surprised to learn that he didn’t even offer to drive me home either. He did agree (just a tad begrudgingly) to stop the car so I could catch the subway home. If I had not asked, I think he would have just let me off at his place to make the long cross-town trek on my own.

Next!

I was willing to give the matchmaker another chance; besides I had already paid her for five introductions so I might as well see if she could come up with someone better than Car Boy.

Next up: Cabin Boy.

Cabin Boy specialized in the high-tech field. On our first date, we had a lot of fun. The food at the restaurant he had chosen was nothing special, but he had a lot of interesting stories about all the high-tech gadgets he was involved in developing. He also told me about his prized cabin or “dacha,” as he liked to call it. Apparently his magical getaway from the stressful city was in the middle of nowhere, yet easily accessible from New York, quiet, pristine, and secluded. A perfect hidden treasure.

I was intrigued.

After a lot of flirtatious e-mail back and forth, we had a few more dinner dates, during which he continued to talk about his cabin along with the high-tech things. He was interesting and smart, if a little distant, and I was enjoying going out with him. I also found myself becoming a little obsessed with his cabin. Would I see it? How far away was it? How often did he go? Was there a bearskin rug on the floor? Was I more intrigued with the cabin than with Cabin Boy himself? I was asking myself all but the last question.

One Thursday afternoon he e-mailed to see if I wanted to drive out to his cabin the next day for a drink. The next day? For a drink? What kind of weird last-minute invitation was that? He didn’t tell me how long it would take to get there, if there would be a possibility of food after the drink, or how long the drink invitation would last. I declined, yet part of me really wanted to see the magical cabin in the woods.

Well, that mythical cabin was never meant to be. About a week later, when I was at a conference in Colorado, Cabin Boy called to tell me he was seeing someone else and that he had decided to “take the high road” and break it off with me.

All I could think of in response was, You mean rather than taking the low road and keep dating me?

Next!

After that episode, I took a break from the car boys and the cabin boys of my dating world and retreated back to the gym where I thought I belonged. I had not given up hope, I just needed to regroup and reconsider my strategies. It was the first time out of the gate for me. I think I needed more practice or better luck or both. But the point was I did it! I was slowly resuscitating my sickly social life into something interesting. Not perfect yet, but getting there. Things were looking up. I was getting curious about lots of things that I had not experienced before. Dating was just a kind of hobby or curiosity for me at that point. I still very much believed in my old theory that men were simply not that into me. But I was about to turn my curiosity on another part of myself. I started to wonder exactly what was the origin of my sky-high mood and energy. In other words I started to get super curious about how my workouts were really affecting my brain.

HOW TO MAKE YOUR WORKOUT INTENTIONAL

The unique thing about intenSati is that it pairs positive spoken affirmations with aerobic workout moves. The affirmations not only increase the cardiorespiratory level of the workout but add an intentional component to the workout. But any workout can be intentional. All you have to do is add a powerful or uplifting or fun mantra or affirmation to your own favorite workout. For example, while jogging you could be chanting, “I am strong now!” in time to your stride. While biking, you could say, “Today, I am inspired!”

Saying the affirmations out loud is great because it strengthens the declaration. But sometimes you can’t shout affirmations out loud—for example, if you are in a big class at the gym with lots of other people. In that case, you can just choose your favorite mantra or affirmation and either just have it run through your mind or just declare it softly to yourself. For example, kickboxing class or spin class or cardio boot camp classes would all be great possibilities to include an affirmation like “I am powerful” or “I have no fear of mistakes” along with your workout. Another great example is if you are somewhere out in nature on a hike or a bike ride all alone with your thoughts. Or try sharing the experience with someone else; then you can say your affirmations together and feel the powerful effect of shared intentional exercise.

TAKE-AWAYS: THE BRAIN–BODY CONNECTION

• The brain–body connection is the idea that your brain, including your thoughts, can affect your body (for example, thinking positive thoughts about a healing injury or recovery from the flu can speed the process), and conversely changes in your body (increased or decreased movement, for example) can affect your brain.

• Intentional exercise happens when you make exercise both aerobic (movement) and mental (with affirmations or mantras). You are fully engaged in the movement and trigger a heightened awareness of the brain–body connection.

• Intentional exercise can boost your mood even more than just exercise alone.

• You can make any exercise intentional by adding affirmations or mantras to your workout.

• Other brain areas involved in the regulation of mood include the hippocampus, amygdala, autonomic nervous system, hypothalamus, and the reward system.

• Exercise enhances mood by increasing brain levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine as well as increasing the levels of the neurohormone endorphin.

• Positive affirmations have been shown to boost mood but the neurobiology underlying this behavioral change is not yet understood.

• Just one minute of power poses decreases the stress hormone cortisol, increases testosterone, and results in people performing better in interview situations, suggesting that power poses should be used to prepare for important talks, presentations, and interviews.

BRAIN HACKS: FINDING THE EXERCISE THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU

Are you currently in search of an exercise that will motivate you to get up off the couch and move your body on a regular basis? An exercise like intenSati really upped my dedication and enjoyment of exercise. The trick is to search out that particular form of exercise that you enjoy the most. There may be lots that you don’t enjoy, but find the one that really makes you feel great. Here are some avenues to explore:

• If you love the outdoors and that wonderful sensory experience of nature, then definitely choose an activity like hiking, walking, or biking outside.

• You can help enhance any workout with the music that makes your toes tap. Spend some time exploring an online music store, virtual radio app, or a music video station on YouTube and find those songs for yourself. I know for me a great song can make me start moving when I thought I was done for the day.

• If you love working out with others, find some friends to exercise with or make new workout buddies at a gym.

• For me, a great instructor can make me work out much harder and have much more fun than I would have on my own. See if you can find an instructor like that and take his or her class.

• If you already like to do things like dance or ski or hike, then incorporate those into your regular workout schedule.

And finally, just keep this in mind: If you are learning a new exercise, don’t expect it to give you that endorphin high the very first time you do it. You need to develop a certain level of expertise in an activity before you can really start feeling that exercise high. So if you don’t feel it at first, but enjoy the exercise, stick with it and wait until you develop more skill. The high will come. Just trust your gut.