16 Oct Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) and exercise
Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) has been referred to as a fertilizer for your brain. Find out how exercise can help you to get more of it.
Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) has been referred to as a fertilizer for your brain. It is a substance that is found in your brain and helps to maintain the life of your brain cells, as well as grow new ones. You’ve probably heard all about ‘neuroplasticity’ and how we used to think our brains, once adult, were like a lump of concrete – unable to change and grow. Scientists now believe our brains are more like plastic – able to adapt, grow and change depending on what we do with them. BDNF is widely accepted as being a key player in this ‘plastic’ ability of the brain – its presence has been shown to make brain cells in petri dishes sprout new branches (necessary activity for a cell to make new connections!).
Low levels of BDNF have been associated with depression, anxiety, poor memory and brain degeneration as seen in conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Why would you want more BDNF?
- Improved learning and memory
- May trigger the production of more serotonin (hello happy feelings!)
- Helps with new skill acquisition
- Improved mood (exercise increases BDNF as much or even more than taking antidepressants does)
- Lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in older age may be related to higher levels of BDNF.
Are you getting the picture? Better mood, better mental performance, healthier brain as you age…
How do you get more BDNF?
One word: STIMULATION. Stimulation of your brain and all its cells can come in many forms. Of course, traditional brain exercise has been thought of as activities such as cross words and using formative assessment tools (which are definitely good!) but here’s another aspect you can add to the list: exercise. As little as 30 minutes of jogging on three days a week has been shown to improve brain functioning, but even better gains have been suggested with more complex activity, which requires you to build or acquire a skill. An example of this is exercise that challenges your balance or thinking, like rock climbing or dancing. You could also consider consuming something like these to help your concentration and brain growth, if you don’t think that exercise is enough for you. However, exercise will ultimately help you.
The ultimate brain booster? A bit of aerobic exercise (at least ten minutes) to increase levels of BDNF and other neurotransmitters, as well as all those other wonderful benefits of aerobic exercise, followed by a skill-based exercise to get the new brain cells creating new networks with each other.
TIP: Want to maximize the increased learning capacity of your brain? Don’t try to learn something while exercising (stop taking your study notes to the spin bike!) – blood flow increases to the brain post-exercise, while BDNF levels are still increased, meaning immediately after exercise is the perfect time to take in new information. Put on that French language podcast on the way home from the gym…
Exercise Right’s five favourite ways to move for more BDNF
- 1. Indoor rock-climbing – especially if you actively commute to the rock wall!
- 2. Trail running – something with twists, turns and great views is awesome
- 3. Dancing – where you’re learning new moves and also working your fitness
- 4. Functional movement – wait until the after school rush has finished then go check out (and play on) your nearest playground – think monkey bars, crawling through tunnels and balancing on beams
- 5. Team sports – they require you to be getting great aerobic gains by running around, whilst also working your brain in terms of strategy and quick thinking
Louise is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) specialising in mental health.
Aisen, P. S. (2014). Serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor and the risk for dementia. JAMA, 311(16), 1684-1685. doi: 10.1001/jama.2014.3120
Binder, Devin K., & Scharfman, Helen E. (2004). Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor. Growth factors (Chur, Switzerland), 22(3), 123-131. doi: 10.1080/08977190410001723308
Hagerman, Eric, & Ratey, Dr John J. (2010). Spark! How Exercise Will Improve the Performance of Your Brain (Kindle Edition ed.).