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A neuroscientist is trying to create tailored 'exercise prescriptions' for aging to keep the brain sharp

Business Insider | Dec 5, 2017, 12.21AM IST

Wendy Suzuki

Wendy Suzuki

Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki

  • Wendy Suzuki discovered the miraculous effects of exercise on the brain when she started working out more herself.
  • Her research has revealed how a single workout can improve your ability to shift and focus attention.
  • Suzuki is creating a startup called BrainThrive that she hopes can dole out tailored exercise "prescriptions".

NYU neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki says some of her most groundbreaking research started after she gained 25 pounds. When she hit the gym, Suzuki noticed that the extra exercise was helping her focus and making her feel happier. Those observations led her to focus her research on the productivity-enhancing, mood-elevating effects of regular exercise.

Now Suzuki is hoping to bring brain-boosting workouts to the masses.

To help people age better and work out smarter, Suzuki is developing a kind of tailored workout formula for keeping the brain fit, like personal training for the mind. She's aiming to launch a new startup based on this idea, called BrainThrive, before the end of 2018.

A prescription for working out

Eventually, Suzuki wants BrainThrive to develop individualized exercise "prescriptions" - detailed instructions for when to work out, how long, and what to do that vary from person to person. Studies have shown that all kinds of workout routines, from aerobic heartbeat-boosting routines, to weightlifting and meditation, can each be helpful for different conditions.

For example, aerobic activity, which carries fresh oxygen to your muscles and flushes away stale carbon dioxide and lactic acid, has been shown to help reduce "chemo brain" in breast cancer survivors. Yoga is a proven treatment for patients struggling with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while bicycling may help kids with ADHD feel more peaceful and calm.

But what about the best workout secrets for a single man in his 30s? Or a mother of two in her 40s?

Suzuki told Business Insider that she's already started looking at preliminary data on exercise patterns and cognitive function from cell phone fitness apps and cognitive tests that people can take on their phones. The idea is that by mining this kind of data, BrainThrive might better zero in on how different brains respond to various kinds of fitness.

Suzuki says exercise 'transformed' her brain

Suzuki now runs a learning, memory and cognition lab at NYU.

She told a crowd at the TEDWomen 2017 conference in November that after gaining weight, she joined every kind of fitness class her gym offered and embarked on a river rafting trip. She quickly noticed how the endorphins from her workouts were improving her mood and giving her more energy. She maintained focus better and read reports more easily.

Suzuki realized something that would inform her studies for years to come: the benefits of exercise aren't confined to muscles or metabolism.

"Exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain," she said in her talk. "A single workout can improve your ability to shift and focus attention."

older woman exercising fitness exercise ball yoga weights

Shutterstock

Suzuki has since examined how exercise increases neurotransmitters associated with good moods. Aerobic activity, she found, boosts chemicals in the brain like depression-busting serotonin and reward-signaling dopamine. These effects can last for up to two hours after a session at the gym or on the trail.

Regular exercise also builds more new cells in the hippocampus, which plays a role in short- and long-term memory and can help us navigate and think about the future. Other studies have shown that aerobic workouts can stave off age-related mental decline, and help with recovery from traumatic brain injuries.

"You can think of exercise as a supercharged 401K for your brain," Suzuki says. "And it's free!"

As we age, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus degrade. But Suzuki believes this cognitive decline could be reduced via a special exercise program built specifically for the aging brain. Her vision is that just as a bodybuilder knows to focus on deltoids or biceps, we'll soon be able to tailor work outs to help our hippocampus or prefrontal cortex.

NOW WATCH: A former Navy SEAL shares his workout routine for staying in amazing shape

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