Can Exercise Pump Up “Mental Muscle”?

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Physical education has long been an integral part of most educational curricula, but could it actually be a key conduit to academic success? That’s the hypothesis of New York University professor Wendy Suzuki, who introduced the highly popular class“Can Exercise Change Your Brain?”” in fall 2010. “It’s widely known that exercise is good for your body, but less well understood are its effects on brain structure in both physiology and function,” Suzuki says.

“The vast majority of studies to date have been done on elderly people in whom cognition is already declining. We want to know: Can exercise be used as a cognitive enhancer at the university level?” If preliminary findings are any indication, that answer could be a resounding yes. Though Suzuki’s research is in the relatively early stages, the inaugural class session yielded evidence that exercise does indeed enhance hippocampal function.

Held once weekly for three months, the class structure combined a one-hour exercise session with a one-and-a-half-hour lecture. Movement was based on the IntenSati workout — a cardio/yoga hybrid paired with meditation and positive affirmations — and students ranged from NYU’s basketball team’s starting point guard to self-proclaimed couch potatoes, all of whom kept detailed exercise logs. Measured against a non-active control group, cognitive tests found the exercise group had become significantly faster and more accurate in responding to memory-based questions since the semester’s start.

These findings corroborate those of a similar line of research at Columbia University, which is exploring the role of the dentate gyrus in cognitive aging. Part of the hippocampus, the dentate gyrus is the part of the brain that deals with pattern separation, or the ability to distinguish between similar objects. According to Columbia’s Scott Small, an associate professor of neurology, various studies have shown that exercise likely has a positive effect on this particular part of the hippocampus by stimulating the birth of new neurons.

“People who have problems with the dentate gyrus might have a hard time remembering the names of two different people; at the coding level, there can be blurring,” explains Small. “One could imagine how having better pattern-separation [ability] would allow a person to encode information better, and that’s probably not a bad thing for a college kid.”

Invigorated by the possibilities, Suzuki took her research one step further by conducting a new study comparing the effects of long-term versus acute exercise. In other words, even if students aren’t regularly active over a long period of time, could short bursts of exercise still help boost academic performance? Suzuki says yes — after exercising for an hour on a stationary bike, students showed frontal lobe improvement on several fronts: Stroop (speed of focus), trail-making (visual attention and task-switching), and digit-span (short-term memory and recitation).

“The implication of this preliminary finding is that acute exercise could be done right before a test,” says Suzuki. “With better ability to focus your attention, you may not only study better, but retain information and perform on actual test-taking better as well.”

The individual perks of these findings are evident, but what are their implications on a more collective level? Suzuki foresees a day when mandatory exercise classes could replace study aids like Ritalin and amphetamines. “There is a big problem in colleges and high schools with kids taking [such] drugs,” says Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at NYU’s Center for Neural Science. “Could it be that all you have to do to improve your grades is come to exercise class? That’s the promise and hypothesis we have.

Since we can see effects of both chronic and acute exercise even in very robust 18-to-20-year-old brains, that really opens the door that this is a highly viable study aid and cognition aid.” Suzuki was herself inspired to begin this course of study about four years ago, when she began regularly taking IntenSati classes on her personal time. “Because of the workouts I was doing, I really started noticing how much better I was at concentrating at work and how my writing improved,” she states. “I then got academically interested in the effects of exercise on cognition and brain structure, and came up with the idea of teaching the class.”

As for what the future holds, Suzuki is currently in the throes of a follow-up acute exercise study, and another “Can Exercise Change Your Brain?” course will be offered. Both classes have been authorized to accept more students, and Suzuki has also secured funding for brain imaging using EEG scans to measure electrical activity during test-taking. Suzuki also hopes to glean more information about the optimal types of exercise and ways to organize study and exercise time effectively to enhance performance in school.


“People pay lots of money for tutoring, when [perhaps] all you have to do is give yourself an exercise regime,” says Suzuki. “I believe we’re really at the tip of the iceberg right now.”

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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