Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better (2016)
SPANDEX IN THE CLASSROOM:
Exercise Can Make You Smarter
At 9:25 A.M. on September 7, 2009, I was clad head to toe in my best spandex, standing in front of a room of undergraduate students at NYU, ready to lead my very first “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?” class. As we stood about in the same space where I had lectured countless times before, the students were decked out in a varied assortment of what could pass as workout clothes—from athletic to sassy to Goth to rumpled, messy, and pajamalike. Clothing was not the only thing different that morning: I felt nervous. And I had not been nervous before teaching a class in at least ten years. I had a lot on the line.
I had been training to be a kick-ass intenSati instructor for the prior six months, and had been planning this class for over a year. This day was the culmination of my vision to bring together two vastly different worlds: exercise and neuroscience. And I was going to do it in a way that had never been done before. Was I just wasting my time? I wondered if my colleagues thought I was more than a little off my rocker to put so much effort into this crazy exercise class when I didn’t even study exercise in my lab (or at least I hadn’t up until then). At that point even I considered it my pet science hobby. It was definitely risky to spend so much time and effort on this one class. I had some doubts even as I was developing the class syllabus. In general my department head had been open and tolerant, allowing my colleagues and me the room to develop a wide range of different courses, but no one had designed a course like the one I was about to launch.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was nervous. While all the students knew that they were going to exercise in this class, I could tell they did not quite know how to react when confronted with their spandex-clad professor. When I looked out at the room, I saw a mixture of expressions: fear, amusement, querulousness, studied boredom, and hints of nervousness. Well, I would never know what was going to happen unless I actually started, so I calmly stepped out in front of the room and said, “Welcome to the very first ‘Can Exercise Change Your Brain?’ class! I hope you guys are up for something a little bit different because NYU has never offered a class quite like this before. This course was inspired when I decided I wanted to get in shape, and I started going to the gym. I became a regular gym goer and noticed how much exercising really helped my attention, my energy, and my concentration at work. With that, the idea for this class was born. I was fascinated with the neuroscience underlying this change, so I designed this course in which we will be combining physical exercise class with lectures on the effects of exercise on the brain. And here we are.”
I told them that we were not going to be just passively learning about the neuroscience research that has examined the effects of exercise on brain function; instead we were going to be actively participating in the research process. In fact, they were going to be tested on their performance at the beginning and then again at the end of the class, up against a control group, to see if exercise could really change their brains. We would also be considering lots of different questions, such as how exercise changes your brain, how much exercise is needed to make a change, how long does the duration of exercise need to be (days vs. weeks vs. months), and what kind of exercise might elicit the best response.
Then I asked, “Okay, are you ready to work out?”
A quiet murmur of consent followed. Not the level of enthusiasm that I was looking for that morning.
So I repeated myself, dramatically cupping my hand to my ear as I asked, “Are you ready to work out?!”
They came back with a strong yes. And with that, we started exercising.
SWEATING IN THE CLASSROOM
I started the class by explaining how the exercise part was going to work and that we would be pairing movements from kickboxing and dance and yoga and martial arts with positive spoken affirmations like “I am strong now!” and “I believe I will succeed!” There were a few incredulous looks and giggles that spread over the crowd with this explanation, but once the giggles died down, I turned on the music. I needed to start.
With music blaring from the surround-sound speakers in our classroom, I introduced the first move, one called Commitment. I showed them how to stretch their right and left arms up in the air (hands wide open and fingers spread) in an alternating fashion to the beat of the music.
Once they got that, I added the affirmation: “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
That was easy. The next move was called Strong, and was accompanied by alternating right and left punches with legs apart and bent at the knee in a light squat.
The students picked up the affirmation “I am strong now!” quickly, and the rest of that day the room rang out with exclamations of:
“I want it, I want it, I really really want it!”
“I believe I will succeed!”
“I am ready to be inspired!”
“I am willing to be inspired!”
“I am able to be inspired!”
“I am inspired right now!”
As we moved, bursts of laughter peppered the classroom, but it was joyful, playful laughter as if the students could not believe they were actually jumping around, sweating, and yelling out affirmations in the same classroom where they usually spent all their time sitting and listening to neuroscience lectures. I could hardly believe it myself.
All my butterflies disappeared as I got into the flow of teaching this exercise class.
I asked them questions like “What are you committed to?” and “What are you saying yes to in your life?” when we were doing the move Commitment.
I asked, “When you do feel strong in your life?” when we were doing the move Strong. Sometimes I stayed on a particular move for longer and did different variations to get the students moving around the room or have them change places in the room. The key was to be very systematic about how I taught the moves and affirmations but to also keep it interesting by adding variation and by asking them to think about the affirmation. As we learned and performed the series together, I traveled the classroom, mirroring the movements right in front of the students or calling individual students out by asking,
“Becky, are you ready to be inspired?”
“Ed, are you strong now?”
This was a great way to engage students in the workout, and it forced me to quickly learn their names. As an academic lecturer I always thought I did a pretty good job at engaging my students and trying to ask relevant questions and encouraging discussion in class. I could already tell on that first day that interacting with the students in this way was changing how I taught. I was discovering a whole new way to relate to them as students and I learned it . . . at the gym!
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE STUDENTS
In memory research, there is something called the primacy effect. It refers to how our brains remember the first items in a series very clearly and strongly. We all have experienced this phenomenon: Think about the immediacy of the memory of your first date, your first kiss, and your first day at a new job.
When I began teaching my new class I realized that I was smack dab in the middle of lots of firsts. This was my first time ever teaching an exercise class. My first time deeply exploring a topic outside of memory and hippocampal function in front of a class full of students. My first time venturing outside of my comfortable “I am an expert professor in charge” box. Yes, this was a brand-new day, and I was immersed in a completely novel experience.
You had to have a bit of an adventurous spirit to sign up for a new class, and my students certainly fit that mold. Jamie was a standout from the beginning, very engaged and a real leader in the classroom. She was there because she had a personal interest. Her autistic sister had been greatly helped by exercise; in fact Jamie told me her mom had always had her sister on a serious exercise regime as part of her therapy. Maybe because of this emphasis on exercise in her childhood home, Jamie herself was not only very athletic but also racked up some of the highest weekly exercise hours of the entire class (I had all students in the class keep a weekly exercise log). She had also worked for wilderness camps for autistic kids and had seen for herself the positive effects of physical exercise on autistic symptoms. Jamie wanted to learn more about the research that supported what she had seen and thus had a deeper purpose in taking the class. She was not there just to fulfill a requirement and get a good grade. Her focus helped set the tone for the entire term. By the way, Jamie went on to graduate school to study, what else: autism.
Emily was the giggler of the group, leading the infectious laughter during the workouts throughout the semester. I still remember the first day of class when she was laughing so hard her glasses steamed up and she could not see. I found out later in the semester that Emily was also working in the lab of a colleague at the medical center, examining the effects of obesity on cognitive function in adolescent and preadolescent children. That work, headed up by Professor Antonio Convit, provided some of the first evidence that obese adolescent children with type 2 diabetes perform worse on a range of different cognitive tasks than do normal children, suggesting that obesity with diabetes is not only terrible for your health (adolescents with type 2 diabetes can expect to live twenty years less than the rest of the population), but bad for your brain as well.
Given her bubbly personality, it was not surprising that Emily graduated that year and started working for Teach for America, where I know she is bringing that same lightness and levity, along with the neuroscience of exercise, into her own classroom.
The academic part of my new class included a lecture (typically thirty to forty-five minutes long), during which I went over material from the readings that I had assigned. We started with the early, more historical precursor studies before launching into neurogenesis and the effects of exercise across different species. The last part of class was my favorite—the discussion session. Here I challenged students to not just read the articles I assigned but also to propose a new experiment based on the readings and current research. This shifted the class from a read, recite, remember strategy to one in which I asked them to think like scientists and ask interesting scientific questions. For example, the journal articles that I had assigned might describe a series of experiments in which scientists gave rats access to a running wheel to increase their exercise and then measured neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells) in the rats’ hippocampi. The articles described the relationship between neurogenesis and the rats’ improved performance on various memory-demanding tasks. That week in class I asked my students to come up with an original experiment related to the studies they had read. They might propose to look at the effects of exercise on other brain areas like the prefrontal cortex and describe the tasks they would use and an experiment to start to understand what brain changes might underlie any improvement in prefrontal function with exercise. Or they might propose to examine a particular molecular pathway that might be involved in the change in brain function that the papers described. The great part of investigating the effects of exercise on brain function is that it’s a relative new topic in the field of neuroscience (a baby of a topic compared to memory, for example), and while there is a solid base of studies to learn from, there are also some key basic questions that remain unanswered, as I’ll discuss later in this chapter. My goal was to get the students first to identify the key questions and then to start to imagine and develop new experiments to address the questions.
This kind of assignment asked for a different kind of thinking and analysis than they were used to from other classes. I wanted them to use what they learned from the research findings to generate the next interesting question. While it was designed to be fun, it ended up causing anxiety in at least some of the type A students. I remember Becky had just presented her new experimental hypothesis in class one day when she blurted out, “I know this is bad, so don’t even tell me it’s good.” I laughed and told her that learning how to ask good experimental questions was a process and requires courage—courage to fail especially. I also assured her that knowing when a question misses the mark is a valuable first step toward figuring out what does make a good research question.
Slow but steady improvement paid off like gangbusters for Becky, who by the end of the semester turned in a beautifully designed experiment examining the specific molecules involved in how exercise enhances neurogenesis. She told me afterward that she could not believe what she had accomplished and that the combination of copious encouragement and gentle critiquing I had done had helped her immensely. I loved seeing this success, and it proves a major belief of mine: Anyone can learn to think like a scientist!
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED WHEN I BROUGHT EXERCISE INTO THE CLASSROOM?
My original idea for bringing exercise into my classroom was that I wanted students to feel the high they got from a great workout as they were learning about all the effects of exercise on the brain. While I also hypothesized that exercise would give them a boost of energy that would also affect the academic part of the class, I never could have predicted all the changes that actually occurred—not only for my students but for me as well.
I used intenSati as the workout for this course for a few reasons. First, as I’ve described, I had found intenSati to be an incredibly motivating and uplifting workout, and I wanted an engaging form of exercise to keep the students motivated and involved in the exercise component of the class throughout the semester. But there were also reasons not to choose this workout. intenSati involves not only an aerobic component but a strong motivational component as well. I strongly suspected that the motivational/affirmation part of the workout added mood-boosting potential beyond the exercise itself. I weighed the pros and cons and decided for this class, keeping the students motivated and engaged in the exercise was most important so I chose to stick with intenSati, but I knew that for anything we found, we would have to go back to determine if exercise alone, affirmations alone, or the particular combination of intentional exercise was causing the effects that we saw. Indeed, this form of exercise did bring a whole new level of energy and excitement into the classroom and everyone, including me, felt it. This positive energy from the exercise portion of the class easily seeped over into the academic lecture and discussion parts. The most obvious change was that the students were more energetic and completely and totally awake after the workout when we got to the academic part of the class. We had just spent the last hour sweating, and working, and high-fiving each other during the exercise, which put the students in an excellent state of mind to learn: They were relaxed but aroused, focused and attuned, and the topic seemed highly relevant and interesting to them.
In addition, I ended each intenSati session with a three-minute meditation (see Chapter 10). This allowed the students to quiet their minds before we started the academic part of the class.
This intentional aerobic exercise together with the short meditation seemed to provide the students with both energy and focus for our academic learning session that followed. In fact, one of the students said this class was nothing like her other morning classes, where she was clinging to her Starbucks cup. Instead she said she was able to remember everything from this class and didn’t even need to take notes. Another student said she felt like she was able to pay better attention in this class relative to her other classes.
Part of this energy boost I believe came from the rather unusual situation of having students work out with their professor (in fact, led by their professor) before class. But in addition to this novelty, I explicitly challenged the students to be as interactive in the lecture part of the class as they were in the call-and-response part of the exercise class. All of these factors worked to give the students a higher level of energy than I’d ever seen before in my classroom. I believe the positive affirmations played a role in this positive shift in energy. As I described in Chapter 4, not only have positive self-affirmations been shown to buffer us from stress and improve our mood in certain situations but aerobic exercise increases a wide range of different brain hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, testosterone, and BDNF, all of which have been shown to have a positive effect on mood. Consistent with these findings, the mood in that classroom was somewhere up in the rafters.
But of course the students were not the only ones benefiting from the exercise. I was too. The first thing I noticed in me was the boost of energy that came from leading the exercise part of the class. I am typically tuckered out after teaching a traditional class, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it through the lecture right after having taught an hour of exercise. I found instead that I was more energized after the entire combination of exercise plus lecture/discussion than I was after my typical lecture classes. I was getting a boost of mood from the exercise and affirmations and from the increase in testosterone from the powerful poses I was leading the students in.
The most striking change, however, was how differently I engaged with the students in that class. The exercise class with all its shouted affirmations and playful interaction, which was not part of my regular academic classes, spilled over to the lecture/discussion parts of the session, so I was interacting with students during the entire class in a much more relaxed way. I also shared more of myself with the students in this class, finding myself openly and easily telling them stories about how the affirmations were working (or not) in my life. These were not science stories, but personal examples of how I used persistence (one of the affirmations) in my life or when I had been strong. This was part of the training I received to be able to teach the exercise class, but I had no idea how much that personal touch would change the interactions with the students in the classroom. It reminded me of the personal stories about her life or her family that Marian Diamond would share with us during class. I remember her stories, but it took me years and years to understand how important they were to establishing the kind of wonderful rapport she had with her students.
MY TEACHING SECRET WEAPON
One of the best and most powerful teaching tools to make something memorable to students is novelty or the element of surprise. Something that is novel or surprising focuses attention, engages emotional systems, and is therefore highly memorable or “sticky,” as neuroscientists like to say.
Let me explain.
I was once teaching a 120-student core curriculum course called “Brain and Behavior” for nonscience majors, and we were coming up to my favorite part of the syllabus, the classes on memory. I wanted to introduce this section in a very memorable way, and I started thinking about ways that I could do that. At our next teaching meeting I introduced this idea to my teaching assistants (TAs) and then asked them to brainstorm. Erik had a fantastic idea. He said he knew a graduate student in our program who moonlighted as a popular underground burlesque performer with the stage name Dr. Flux (remember, I work in New York City!) and one quick e-mail confirmed that he would be happy to participate in our little scheme.
On the day of the introduction to memory lecture, I started as I usually do, describing the basic concept of memory. Suddenly Dr. Flux burst through the door in a nerdy-looking suit covered by a lab coat, surprising everyone, including me. I was surprised because I had not seen him in full costume before and half of his shaved head was covered with an inch-thick layer of what looked like gold sparkle dust. On cue one of the TAs turned on some music, and Dr. Flux started strutting in front of the classroom, doing a risqué dance number. At this point the students were turning to one another and to me, wondering what was going on. Then Dr. Flux took off his lab coat and ripped off most of the rest of his clothes (held together by Velcro) under which he revealed a rather small pair of bright gold booty shorts (he had failed to mention just how tiny the shorts were when he had first described his act to me).
Dr. Flux then began undulating to the music right next to me at the front of the classroom, at one point even doing a back bend. Finally, he pulled on a bright orange hazard suit and dramatically left the room.
You should have just seen the look on the students’ faces. After Dr. Flux walked out the door, without missing a beat, I turned to the class and asked, “So what makes things memorable?”
One young man way in the back of that big classroom, who had never raised his hand before, put his hand up. I called on him and he said with certainty, “Gold booty shorts!”
I said, “Yes!”
I explained that the demonstration used to start off our section on memory was in itself memorable because it was novel (gold booty shorts), surprising (gold booty shorts), emotional (stripping to reveal the gold booty shorts in the context of a classroom), and attention grabbing (gold booty shorts). I guarantee that those students will remember that introduction to memory for a very long time.
CAN EXERCISE CHANGE YOUR BRAIN? THE RESULTS SHOW
The great thing about the “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?” course is that I had more than just anecdotes to tell about how this class was so different from any other class I taught; I had actual experimental evidence. As you will remember, in this class, we asked the question, Could once-a-week aerobic exercise (plus affirmations) for a semester (fifteen weeks) improve memory encoding relative to students in a different elective neuroscience class that didn’t include exercise? At the end of the study, we had relatively small numbers of students in the exercise class and the control class. The deck was stacked against us because of both the small number of subjects and the low number of exercise sessions they completed during the study.
We examined the results of the memory-encoding task (which is supposed to depend on the part of the hippocampus where new cells are born) to see if there was any difference in the performance of the two classes. We were all thrilled to find a significant improvement in the exercise group relative to the control group in one measure. We found that the exercise group responded to the correct stimulus in the memory-encoding task significantly faster than the control group. Processing speed is one aspect of cognition that has been reported to improve with exercise, and we were able to see this in this study.
Now, previous studies had shown that rats performed significantly better on a task after exercise, just like our memory-encoding task. We didn’t see an overall improvement in performance (that is, more correct choices), but one big difference was that the experimental rats got much more exercise than the control group rats—sometimes running ten kilometers a day (rats love to run). We didn’t see an overall improvement in memory in my students, but we seemed to see just the first hint of an improvement on the task in the form of reaction time. This was important because it told me that with just once a week of increased exercise, you can start to see a significant effect on some measure of the memory-encoding task in healthy young adults.
This finding lit a fire under me like no other result I had gotten before because it suggested something very exciting. If we could start seeing reliable effects in healthy young adults with just once-a-week exercise, what would we see if the subjects increased their exercise to three or four times a week? Now that was exciting and is among the questions we are pursuing now.
Now, the other question from this first study was whether the effects we saw were due to the increase in aerobic exercise alone, the positive affirmations (the intentional component) alone, or the combination of the two. As I mentioned, there was a huge motivational shift in terms of interaction in the course, and many of the students commented on how the affirmations that we said in class stayed in their head all week. We focused on the mood component of intenSati in another study I did soon after the exercise study in students, this time focused on a patient population group: individuals who had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI).
EXERCISE EFFECTS ON MOOD IN TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY
A collaboration that developed after a talk I gave at NYU’s medical school campus about my exercise class was with Dr. Teresa Ashman, from the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center. Ashman specializes in the rehabilitation of patients with TBI. This seemed like an ideal population to try our exercise intervention on for a variety of reasons. First, these patients suffer from a range of cognitive deficits, including difficulty with attention, motivation, and memory. Depression and fatigue are also common in TBI patients. We reasoned that long-term exercise might have the potential to improve the cognitive problems seen in these patients as well as improve or alleviate the depressive symptoms. So we set about to design a simple experiment in which we tested subjects before and after an eight-week exercise intervention that consisted of twice-a-week group exercise. Control subjects did no exercise for the same time period.
I went to the first session of the experiment after the participants had been chosen for the study, ready to give them all a big welcome and pep talk, to tell them why we were doing this work, and to encourage them to the best of my ability to come to as many of the exercise sessions as they could over the next eight weeks. The age of the participants ranged from the twenties to the sixties (you can suffer from TBI at any age). Luckily, I met a positive and expectant attitude in the room that day, and I was confident that we had a great and engaged group of subjects.
I then asked the exercise instructor, Amanda Berlin, to lead the whole group in a short and easy three-minute exercise demonstration. The participants looked a little unsure about standing up and exercising at the introductory session, but all joined in eventually and seemed to enjoy it. Well, almost everyone. When the demo was over, I turned around and saw a young woman walking toward me with a pinched red face who looked like she was about to cry. Her name was Angelina. I immediately asked her what was wrong. “That was torture for me!” she spat out. “The music was way too loud and too fast and the bright lights in the room really hurt my eyes!”
I could tell that Angelina really wanted to be a part of this study, but she was so frustrated by the demonstration that I worried she wouldn’t return. Ashman and I assured her that we would make sure that the music was slower and the lights lower next time, and that she could do the workout sitting down if that was easier. We then introduced her to the instructor, and assured her that Amanda would take great care of her. Eventually, Angelina calmed down.
During the eight weeks that the test participants were meeting for exercise class, I got regular updates on attendance and made sure that the instructor had all the support she needed to run the classes efficiently and easily. At the end of eight weeks, I was touched to get an invitation from the participants, who invited me to come to their last class so I could see their progress.
I arrived in the NYU medical school classroom and immediately noticed that the room was buzzing with energy. Everyone was excited to be there, and the participants were all saying how they could not believe how quickly the eight weeks had passed. When everyone had arrived, Amanda started class, and I could not help but notice that her music was as fast as the music in any local gym in New York City. Not only was the music fast but everyone was keeping up. I saw the group jumping and punching in perfect time to the music—they clearly knew what they were doing.
But it was what I saw in the front row of the class that made my day, week, month, and year. It was Angelina. I had hardly recognized her, but there she was, with a huge smile on her face doing the workout like a pro. I looked twice to be sure that it was her, and sure enough, it was! I spent the whole rest of the hour marveling at what I was seeing.
After the workout and meditation were over, we all sat in a circle. I asked, “Do you all know how amazing you are?” The whole group was beaming.
I continued. “Do you know what a difference I see from where you all started eight weeks ago? What happened?”
They all then started pointing at one another and talking all at once. One beautiful young woman said that she learned how to smile again in this class, and she had also invited her therapist to come to this last class so she could see. Another woman said that she was just so inspired by seeing the improvement in everyone else each week. They all credited Amanda for being a wonderful leader. Angelina described her amazing transformation, which was actually a gradual but continuous process. She said the first week of class she could not even feel her feet under her body during the exercise, but by the second week she could. She could not do both the arm movements and the leg movements at the same time so she worked on one at a time. But soon enough, everything just came together, and after regular attendance, she could suddenly do all the movements—all at once. I can’t describe the look of joy and accomplishment that she had on her face as she spoke.
A real transformation had taken place in that exercise group, and it was one of the most beautiful things that I had ever seen. And the study was not even over yet. The participants had all taken cognitive and mood tests at the start of the exercise regime. Luckily we had really focused on the mood aspect of the change and had a wide range of different mood and quality-of-life assessment forms we had given them to fill out. Now, they would retake all the same tests to determine if they had changed relative to the nonexercising control group. What we found reflected exactly what I saw in that final exercise class. There was significant improvement in mood and quality-of-life measures for those who had done the exercise class compared to the TBI patients who had not. As measured by the various surveys they took, the exercising TBI group had decreased scores on a depression and fatigue index and increased scores for positive affect and quality of life. I got a glimpse of all of those changes when I saw the group in exercise class. It turned out that none of our measures of memory or attention had changed, but this might have been because, although the group eventually worked themselves up to quite high levels of aerobic activity, it took several weeks to get there. In other words, while we saw clear improvements in mood, we might not have had an intense enough level of aerobic activity over the eight weeks to see improvements in cognitive functions.
The paper Ashman, our research team, and I wrote after we completed the TBI study turned out to be my first published report about the effect of exercise in a patient population group. What a thrill! Our findings suggested that eight weeks of twice-a-week exercise could significantly improve mood, positive affect, and quality of life measures and decrease fatigue in TBI patients. While our study size was small, this was an exciting result. But then, we had to ask ourselves, What was really underlying this effect? Was it the exercise? Was it the fun and interactive group environment? This study alone could not answer those questions, but future studies can be done to tease those important factors out. The important point is that our results suggested that intentional exercise can improve a range of mood and fatigue measures in patients with TBI. I was more than happy to take that as a start.
TELLIN’ IT LIKE IT IS
I typically get one of two reactions when I tell people that I’m a neuroscientist who studies the effects of exercise on brain function. The first is “That is so cool—I want to know all the results of your studies!” The second is “Of course we know that exercise improves brain function! Isn’t that old news?”
I think these two responses reflect the effects of the popular press on this exciting field right now. On the one hand, there are popular articles being published almost every day about the positive effects of exercise on brain function. These articles are wonderful in the sense that they keep the general public up to date on the latest findings, but they have a tendency to make strong conclusions based on the publication of a single study, giving the false impression that we know much more than we do. So I can understand the people who have the impression that most everything is already known.
The reality is quite a different story. It’s true that there are more and more neuroscientists focused on examining the effects of exercise on brain function in both animals and humans, but there are still many big and exciting questions left to address. For example, the studies thus far in animals have focused strongly on the effects of exercise on the hippocampus and on identifying the neurotransmitters and growth factors that change with exercise. There is a rich literature there, but an exciting direction will be examining the brain effects of exercise outside of the hippocampus. For example, the most common finding in humans is the effects of exercise on prefrontal function. Very little is known about the effects of exercise in the prefrontal cortex in rodents. Similarly, there is exciting literature on the positive effects of exercise in the easing of symptoms in Parkinson’s disease. These findings suggest a strong effect of exercise on the striatum, the primary area of the brain damaged in Parkinson’s. Very few studies have examined how exercise affects the striatum in normal animals. But perhaps one of the biggest unanswered questions that can be addressed by studies in animals is understanding the precise pathways, molecules, and mechanisms for how exercise is triggering any change in the brain. In other words, we know that if you let a rat exercise, you can see changes in BDNF, endorphin, dopamine, acetylcholine levels, and neurogenesis, but we don’t know exactly how exercising is stimulating all these changes. It could be myriad different factors that do the trick, and different factors could be responsible for the wide range of observed brain changes. It could be the increased heart or respiration rate or the change in blood flow, muscle activity, and/or body temperature that stimulates the brain. It’s a complex problem and many basic questions remain unanswered. One recent study claims to have identified a factor secreted by the muscles that can pass into the brain and stimulate the release of BDNF. This is an exciting new report and will need to be replicated and confirmed by other studies.
In people, a mountain of questions remains; many of them have been raised by animal studies and are waiting to be confirmed with randomized controlled studies in humans. The preliminary studies have whet our appetite and told us there is something there, but I want to know if all the striking changes reported in the rodent brain can be seen in the human brain. In a nutshell, it’s the prescriptive piece that is missing from the humans studies and that forms the core of the research program in my lab. Here are some of the key unanswered questions about the effects of exercise in humans that fascinate me:
• How much (or little) exercise do I need to see improvements in memory or attention? Answer: We know that short-term exercise for thirty to sixty minutes can improve attention, but we don’t yet know how long the improvement lasts. After an increase in exercise over eight to twelve weeks, we see an improvement in attention and sometimes memory.
• How long do brain enhancements last in humans after exercise? Answer: We don’t know in the case of acute exercise or long-term exercise.
• Which brain function improves with the least amount of exercise? Answer: We don’t know.
• What kinds of exercise are most effective? Answer: There is evidence that aerobic exercise is more effective than stretching or resistance training, but we don’t yet have a good idea of which kinds of aerobic exercise might be best or what level of cardiac output might be best to enhance cognition.
• Does yoga help my brain? Answer: There are a few studies on the effects of yoga on the brain mainly focusing on how the meditative aspects play into brain function. But there are too few studies of this kind to make firm conclusions.
• Can I take a pill and get the same effects as exercise? Answer: No. While many have attempted to create this magic bullet, there are no pills available that can reproduce the widespread effects of exercise on brain function.
• What time of day is best to exercise? Answer: The first answer is any time of the day that lets you exercise regularly! The scientific jury is still out on definitively determining the best time of day to exercise. My personal preference is to exercise first thing in the morning. This gets the positive hormones, neurotransmitters, growth factors, and endorphins flowing, preparing me for the workday. While this may be true, it still has not been definitely proven which time of day is more beneficial for cognitive performance. It may also be that no matter what time the workout, the long-term changes in brain chemistry and function may emerge irrespective of the time of day of your regular workouts. In the absence of definitive evidence, I choose the theoretical best answer for preparing the brain for a day of work: an early morning aerobic workout.
All the exciting research findings in rodents showing striking brain changes conferred by exercise make exercise one of the most exciting potential therapies around. It’s free and available to all. It has the potential to improve brain function in healthy brains, young brains, old brains, and diseased brains alike. It can help students young and old learn better in school. And it makes you happy as it improves various cognitive functions in your brain. This is why I’m excited to devote the next phase of my career to this area.
THE CLASS THAT REFLECTED MY LIFE
My “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?” class, a brand-new kind of hybrid course, represented the brand-new kind of challenges I was taking on in my own life. Not satisfied with continuing on my single-minded academic science track focused on the neurobiology of memory, now that I had tenure, I was starting to explore other areas of scientific interest to me irrespective of whether I had studied them before or not. I think I was just on a roll that started with the change in diet and exercise that I made in my life and how it had changed the way I felt in my body and the way I moved around in the world. It turns out that those changes also changed the way I saw myself. I started to see myself as strong, powerful (just like the affirmations that I was doling out in class), and able to make any change I could come up with in my life. And I was getting a little hint of that inspiration every single time I went to exercise class. In every class, in addition to the surge of all those good brain chemicals, I was reminded that I could push myself exactly as hard as I wanted to and feel the benefits in terms of my own strength and endurance. And this transferred to other exercise classes I was taking—from kickboxing to cardio sculpt classes to spin. And though these other classes didn’t incorporate the same kind of explicit intention practice, my own awareness and attunement to my emotional experience during those workouts was just as elevated as during intenSati. With all of this mental and emotional energy in the form of heightened motivation, I felt I could move mountains.
This inspiration not only affected the courses I developed but started affecting other aspects of my life as well. For example, while I started out developing the “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?” class as a kind of science hobby, there was a clear moment while teaching that first semester when I realized the topic was more than just a hobby for me. It happened when Omar, one of the students in that first class, came to talk to me about doing some independent research on exercise in my lab. Omar was a varsity athlete. In fact he was the starting point guard on NYU’s men’s varsity basketball team and no stranger to long, hard workouts. He was quiet in class but had a deep interest in the brain effects of exercise because of the time he spent in the gym practicing. Soon after class started he came to my lab asking about whether he could do a research study under my guidance in the lab. While the study we were doing as part of the class focused on the effects of long-term exercise (increased exercise for three months), Omar was interested in asking if you could see evidence of significant improvements in cognitive functions after just one hour of aerobic exercise. It was a great question and I happily agreed to have him join the lab to do this project. But I actually had no other research in my lab at the time studying exercise. His request made me realize I did want my lab to start to study this question in a serious way. This was the moment when I left exercise behind as a science hobby and declared it a major theme of my research lab. I was not an expert in this area but was more than eager to do the work to become one.
This newfound spirit of exploration even affected my dating. I had enough of the NYC matchmakers and decided to see what I would find online. They say that you attract the kind of person that you are yourself, and one day as I was browsing the profiles of an online dating service I had signed up for, I stumbled on one that immediately caught my attention. It had no picture, which usually meant an immediate pass for me, but the profile itself intrigued me. He was a professional musician, never married, living in New York, and had played with some of the best orchestras in the city. Hmmm. Ever since François, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for musicians. Maybe this one was worth another look. For this particular online dating website you had to answer more questions to get to the next level, and when I did that, I did see a picture and I thought he looked nice, though somewhat intense. But he was a professional musician working in New York City, what did I expect?
THE MATCHMAKER FROM HELL
I don’t have anything against matchmakers. The two I worked with provided me with some reasonable if not completely stellar dates and one serous relationship (Art). But my last encounter with a matchmaker put me off them for the foreseeable future. I went to an evening spa event with my dear friend Cheryl Conrad, a neuroscientist from Arizona, to hear what the guest speaker, a matchmaker, had to say. The matchmaker was very thin, and I couldn’t help noticing that she didn’t smile very much and didn’t look all that happy to be there. She talked for fifteen or twenty minutes about her philosophy in matchmaking and the mechanics of how it all worked. It got interesting only after she finished her presentation and said she would take questions. An elegant-looking woman wearing high black boots and what looked like a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress raised her hand, and said, “I have a friend who has a problem because she is always intimidating the men she dates. What do you suggest?”
Without skipping a beat the matchmaker said, “Well, the first thing I would do is stop wearing those hooker boots.” Apparently, the matchmaker was referring to the high black boots that went a little above the knee that the woman was wearing. I would never have thought to compare them to the boots Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman, but that’s me.
The room went deathly silent. I think everyone was holding their breath to see who would say what next. Fistfight? Screaming? Hair pulling? Anything could happen.
The woman calmly replied, “I said it was a friend.”
After a split second, in which I do believe the matchmaker realized just how insulting she’d been, she said, “Well, intimidation is common in dating—especially in New York.” I can’t remember the rest of what she said because I was just so shocked at how rude she was and wanted to get away from there as fast as possible!
No, there were going to be no more matchmakers for me, and definitely not Miss Hooker Boots. Onward and upward!
After a week of answering questions about what we liked to do and where we liked to eat, we decided to meet for lunch near Carnegie Hall, where he often performed and practiced. We hit it off right away. While he was on the quiet side, he was very smart, interesting, and loved good food—a huge plus for me. This was starting to look promising.
Daniel and I went out for eight months, during which I got to hear a lot of fantastic music, eat at some great restaurants, and learn a lot about the classical music scene in New York City. Some of my warmest memories of our time together were the evenings I would get to see a beautiful opera performance (albeit alone because he was playing with the orchestra) and we would meet afterward for a romantic late-night dinner, and he would tell me all about the trials and tribulations of working with this difficult conductor or that one or about that one who completely lost the whole orchestra in the middle of the rehearsal. I loved it. But then again, on other nights, I would go home alone because he had to rehearse after the performance for the next day. At first his intense rehearsal schedule didn’t interfere at all because I was busy too, but I came to realize just how consumed he was with his work.
In the end, Daniel wanted to get involved only so far. He was just not able to spend enough time with me because he was more married to his music than he could ever be to me, and we broke it off. It’s always sad to break up, but something was different with this breakup. I realized I had enjoyed the ride. I was glad we went out and was glad to have known him and seen at least a little bit inside the world of the intense professional musician. I was getting both bolder and much more comfortable and confident in my own skin. This was clearly changing my romantic relationships, and I was able to step back just a little and appreciate it for what it was and move on. Don’t get me wrong—it still really hurt when we broke up, and I had sadness and tears and anger. But that cleared up fairly quickly, and I was okay.
The other observation I made with more than a little bit of irony is that I was still a firm believer in the idea that you attract the kind of person you are. In Daniel, I attracted an intelligent, sensitive, interesting workaholic who was so obsessed with his work that he could not fit a close romantic relationship into his life. I had to look at myself and ask, Is that what I am? I had come a long way from the days when my social life was like a deserted ghost town from a Clint Eastwood movie. I really had. I had lots more friends and a much more active social life. But in the end, I still prioritized work over everything else (even if I made more time for those other things). And maybe I still judged myself by my success at work. I may have come a long way, but I still had a ways to go. And I would know I had gotten there when I started to attract men and other friends in my life who were not distracted workaholics but who were confident in their own skin and balanced work and other aspects of their life in the beautiful way I aspired to. Still a work in progress. But progress had been made.
TAKE-AWAYS: HOW EXERCISE MAKES YOU SMARTER
• Aerobic exercise can transform an academic classroom.
• One semester of just once-a-week intentional exercise can improve response time in healthy college students.
• Eight weeks of twice-a-week intenSati improved four measures of mood and well-being in patients with traumatic brain injury.
BRAIN HACKS: HOW DO I INCREASE MY EXERCISE? PART II
It’s easier to get in your four-minute workouts if you involve your friends and family, so don’t be shy about challenging them to join in the fun.
• Have a four-minute pillow fight with someone you love.
• Do jumping jacks through all the commercials of your favorite show each week and challenge your family to do the same.
• Challenge someone to an arm-wrestling match.
• Dance around your office, bedroom, living room, kitchen to your favorite song. (Try “Bang Bang” or “All About That Bass” for starters.) This is also a guaranteed mood booster and energy lifter—let those singers do the work to get you moving! If shadowboxing is more your thing, do that instead!
• At work, go to the bathroom on another floor and take the stairs.
• Bring a jump rope with you, and jump wherever and whenever you have time.
• Play and move with your dog or cat.