Humans of McMaster: Jennifer Heisz
C/O Paulina Rzeczkowska
The Silhouette: Please provide a brief summary of the research you and those at the NeuroFit lab do.
Jennifer Heisz: I am the director of the NeuroFit lab and we study the impacts of exercise on the brain, as it can be used to improve cognition and mental health in individuals who are younger, older and with Alzheimer's disease.
Tell me a bit about your new book!
My new book is called Move the Body, Heal the Mind: Overcome Anxiety, Depression and Dementia and Improve Focus, Creativity and Sleep and this book is really special for three reasons. First, it showcases the greatest research studies from my lab and others around the world, showing the benefits of exercise for the brain. It also has a very personal story of my own. I personally have struggled with mental health issues in the past and was able to use exercise to heal my own mind and I share pretty candidly those stories in the book. Then, finally, a really special feature of the book is, at the end of each chapter, there are these specialized workouts [where] I synthesize the research into these workout plans.
What are you most proud of in this book?
I'm really proud of the messages that are sent. It’s a compassionate piece that I think, based on the early reviews, is really resonating with people who have felt lost or are struggling with mental health and feel alone, or have struggled to be active and now find the new motivation to be more active. I'm really, really proud of the book. I researched it extensively, I poured my whole heart and soul into these personal stories . . . I feel like when we think about mental health, our stories can remain secret, but I think when successful people share and open up about their own struggles with mental health it can give young people hope.
Was it difficult being so vulnerable and open with your personal experiences in the book?
Yes . . . It's so hard to be vulnerable and [share] this story, but the hope is that by being so honest and so open, it will really help the people that need it the most.
If there is one thing you want readers to take away from the book, what would it be?
That they're not alone in their journey and their struggle. That there is light at the end of the tunnel and you just need to hold on to that hope that it'll be better . . . It can be hard but you're not alone and successful people struggle and still achieve many amazing things in their life, you know, and asking for help is important when you need it.
For students who maybe want to pursue a variety of passions or develop their careers in different ways the way that you have, do you have any advice for them when it comes to having multiple roles in their career?
Yeah, I think that variety is the spice of life, right? And having different passions is a really great way to stay excited and invigorated in your work, your life's work . . . For me, the big thing is having a vision, having a dream about what you want to do and what contribution you want to make in your life and then putting those pieces in motion to make that dream a reality even if it takes years. Some of the big things we want to do, like this book from inception to publication was three years, it takes a long time, but you know, step by step, piece by piece, it comes together and so having this vision and this long-term planning can be really beneficial.
Anything else you would like to add or share with students?
I think especially during busy times, like exam times, it's important to make time for self-care. It seems counterproductive, but it's so valuable because when we take time to care for ourselves . . . [it] helps our brain to thrive and function better optimally so that we are more efficient at studying and we're more productive during our work time . . . Five-minute breaks are enough to improve focus. A 10-minute break’s enough to increase creativity and then the 30-minute break three times a week we've shown is enough to buffer against stress-induced depression. So just brisk walking for five to 10 or 30 minutes is enough to really have a big impact on your mental health and cognition.