Move your body to spark your brain
Physical activity is incredibly important for health and performance. Exercise improves cardiovascular fitness, strengthens muscles and bones, and boosts energy. Physical activity also decreases the risk of numerous diseases including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. You also might have noticed that when you exercise regularly you have improved quality of sleep and are able to make better food choices. Basically — when you prioritize exercise, all other aspects of your health and performance improve!
We also know that physical activity is incredibly important for the brain. During exercise, your brain is flooded with brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates the growth of new neurons and can improve mental alertness, learning, and memory. Acute exercise increases circulating levels of BDNF, which means that a single bout of exercise can improve mental clarity!
While it is widely accepted that increases in BDNF contribute to both acute and long term cognitive benefits, the exact mechanism and optimal exercise modality remain to be determined. In an article in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, the authors dig into the mechanisms behind increased BDNF levels, as well as how to use exercise to optimize long term brain health.
While this is a very detailed and comprehensive review, here are some of the most impactful takeaways:
1. Maximizing long term adaptations. BDNF is released when the body experiences physiological stress such as exercise, heat exposure, and intermittent fasting. While acute exercise results in increased levels of circulating BDNF, this increase only lasts around 30–60 minutes before returning to baseline levels. However, studies have shown that in addition to acute benefits, exercise has long-term benefits on cognitive function, preventing neurological diseases, and stimulating brain plasticity. One hypothesis for these long term benefits is that repeated bouts of BDNF exposure through regular exercise continuously stimulates the brain, leading to long term functional and structural brain adaptations.
The authors suggest that we can use the time period immediately after exercise when BDNF levels are high to maximize long term benefits. For example, doing a cognitively demanding task following exercise could increase the delivery of BDNF to the areas of the brain that are active at that time. Prescribing this type of combined exercise + cognitive (‘multimodal’) training could be particularly beneficial to individuals with neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, in which increased BDNF circulation would be helpful in maintaining cognitive function. Further research is needed to determine the optimal exercise design to maximize BDNF circulation to the brain
2. Full body vs. isolated movements. While once thought to be only from whole-body aerobic exercise, research now indicates that isolated exercises can also increase levels of circulating BDNF. One study found that forearm handgrip exercises performed for 10 minutes at maximal effort or 30 minutes at submaximal effort were effective in increasing circulating BDNF. These findings are significant because it means individuals with limited mobility are also able to use exercise to boost cognitive function.
What does this mean for you?
- Cognitive benefits from exercise are immediate so if you have an important thinking-related task, doing some light exercise beforehand is a great idea!
- It appears that regular exercise also leads to long term cognitive benefits, such as decreasing the risk of developing neurological diseases and stimulating brain plasticity. While more research is needed, these benefits might be even more pronounced if you perform a cognitive task immediately following exercise.
- In addition to full-body aerobic exercise, isolated movement-based exercise (such as grip strength exercises) for as little as 10 minutes can increase BDNF. So if you have limited mobility you can still gain the cognitive benefits from doing isolated movements.
- If you want to track your training you are welcome to use our app VIIVIO (download for free at www.viiv.io. Here’s a video that can help you get started with the app.