There’s plenty of healthy reasons to hit the gym, but rarely do we consider exercise a mental workout. Professor Wendy Suzuki changed all that. By her 40th birthday, Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at NYU, reached the peak of her professional career only to realize her personal life felt empty. Overworked and out of shape, she decided it was time to jump into regular exercise. It made her feel better than ever, but she noticed the biggest benefits were emotional: she felt less stressed, more focused, and ultimately more confident. That’s when Suzuki, a renowned researcher of brain plasticity, began to study not only how physical activity impacts our cognitive functions but also how students can use exercise as a tool to improve their health—and their grades.
Suzuki uses her lab at NYU to delve even deeper. “We know that the more you exercise, the less chance you have of developing dementia and the better you do on cognitive tasks,” says Suzuki. “But everyone asks me, ‘What kind of exercise should I do?’ That’s what we don’t know, the prescription.” The Suzuki Lab invites students to help research areas like the connection between exercise and long-term memory or design their own experiments and apply for grants—a chance for them to think and work as real scientists.
But Suzuki has something else on the brain too: how exercise can impact college students adapting to a new lifestyle. “One of my goals is to understand how best to apply physical activity to maximize someone’s academic experience here at NYU as well as how they can reach peak brain capacity,” says Suzuki.
The formula may vary from student to student, she says, but the right exercise regimen can help students focus more closely on a lecture, sleep better, and fight the effects of depression. What’s more, Suzuki’s first step to helping people active their brain’s potential is communicating the science behind it—through teaching, writing, and even her TED Talk lectures. “My goal is always to make neuroscience understandable,” she says. “I want to provide useful, enriching, and empowering information that people can really grasp, no matter who they are or how fit they are.”