Happy 2013 and welcome to my very first Psychology Today blog post. For this special occasion, I am sharing a sure-fire recovery for all those stresses and strains you’ve accumulated this holiday season. Exercise.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. The stats on gym memberships in January say it all. This is the time of year when new gym memberships enjoy a whopping 30-50% spike and there are so many exercise newbies roaming around the gym that it’s hard to find the exercise machines. But then, just as suddenly as they appeared around January 3rd, they disappear as February 1 rolls around. Most new members promptly lose their motivation to get to the gym after a handful of visits even though exercise was their #1 resolution just a few weeks (or sometimes days) ago.

What we need is a motivational kick-in-the-pants for our exercise resolutions. I’m here to tell you that motivation is here and it comes in the form of exciting new findings from the field of neuroscience. These new findings show that exercise can help you recover from the compound holiday stresses of traveling, gift giving and the increased belt size associated with your recent culinary indulgences. If that wasn’t enough, new findings from my own lab suggest that exercise can actually sharpen your cognitive powers to help you get a running start to the New Year (pun intended).

Let’s start with those juicy cognitive benefits. Four years ago, surprised by how much regular aerobic exercise seemed to improve my own learning, memory and attention abilities, I decided to start a new line of research in my lab focused on understanding how exercise might improve cognitive functions in humans. The first experiment I designed came in the form of an undergraduate course that I developed and taught at New York University called “Can Exercise Change your Brain?” (http://www.wendysuzuki.com/about/videos.php?id=intensati). This course combined exercise, academics and experimental research all in one. Each class session consisted of an hour of aerobic exercise that I led (after becoming certified group fitness instructor), followed by a 90 minute lecture/discussion on our current understanding of the effects of exercise on the brain’s anatomy, physiology and function. The experimental part came when I tested the students in my class cognitively at the beginning and at the end of the semester. When I compared their cognitive performance to a control class that did not exercise during class, I found that my exercising students improved their memory encoding abilities. This was exciting because it suggested increased aerobic exercise could have significant effects on cognitive functions in healthy young adults. This means that increasing your aerobic activity at the gym or where ever you like to exercise has the potential to improve your cognitive functions for the New Year.

What about all that holiday stress? First off, many years of research in both animals as well as in humans has shown that stress not only damages brain cells in a structure important for learning and memory called the hippocampus but also causes significant learning and memory impairments. The good news is that studies in rats have shown that increased exercise/activity not only protects the hippocampus from any ensuing stress, but can help repair hippocampal damage after a stressful situation has occurred (think exercise in January). One way that exercise accomplishes these amazing feats is that it stimulates the brain’s production of a chemical called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF for short) that appears to protect and repair the hippocampus from brain-damaging stress hormones. We also know that exercise stimulates the birth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. BDNF helps the shiny new hippocampal brain cells thrive and grow. Both increased neurogenesis and increased levels of BDNF may also contribute to the improved cognitive performance that I saw in the students in my “Can Exercise Change your Brain?” study.

And what about all those delicious gastronomic holiday indulgences? Did you know that high fat diets are not only bad for our waist-line, but also for our brain as well? Rats fed on high fat diets perform significantly worse on a range of different cognitive tests. But the exciting news is that several recent studies have reported that exercise can rescue the fat-induced cognitive impairment in rats. BDNF may also be involved here since previous studies showed that a high fat diet decreases BDNF in the brain but exercise brings it back to normal levels.

So there it is. Compelling new reasons to get to the gym, pool, biking or running trail this month and stay there as long as you can. Exercise not only helps you recover from the cognitive double whammy of holiday stress and high fat holiday foods, but continued regular exercise can help you improve your cognitive functions beyond your pre-holiday level to help make 2013 your best year ever.

Through the rest of the year I’ll be describing findings from my own research on the effects of exercise on brain function not only in healthy young adults but also in different patient population groups (i.e., traumatic brain injury patients and patients recovering from addiction). I will also highlight the latest and most exciting findings on the effects of exercise and cognition from the Neuroscience literature. For now, I wish you all a happy and exercise-filled New Year and look forward to seeing you again next month.

About the Author

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D.

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., studies how our brain forms new long-term memories as well as the effects of aerobic exercise on our learning, memory, and cognitive functions.

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