While we often automatically consider keeping in shape, building muscle and having more energy as the main result of consistent exercise, the benefits to brain and mental health are not often discussed or well understood. An ever expanding body of research in the scientific community has found evidence to support the link between exercise and its positive impacts on brain function. One of the most important components in brain function and development is the protein Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). With links to reduction and prevention of mental illnesses and overall increased functioning of the brain, it is incredibly useful to understand how to maintain our supply of BDNF.   

What is Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor?

If you’ve ever heard the word plasticity or neuroplasticity used in relation to brain health, it refers to the process of neurogenesis, essentially the brain’s ability to constantly rewire itself through generation of new cells. The key players in this process are neurotrophins, a group of proteins responsible for the survival and function of neurons. They belong to a group of “growth factors” which signal for cells to survive, differentiate, or grow.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is a crucial protein produced inside nerve cells (neurons) which builds and maintains the circuits (synapses) allowing the signals to travel within the brain. The BDNF protein regulates the changes to synapses (which occur as a result of time and experience) to ensure cell to cell communication and ultimately the survival of neurons

Importance of BDNF

BDNF is regarded as being one of the most active as well as universally important proteins for new cell generation in the brain. Maintaining levels of BDNF ensures different areas of the brain are able to communicate and create signals for every sensation, movement, thought and emotion. Active in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain, BDNF is vital to learning, memory, and higher thinking, and is also connected with processes of energy homeostasis and metabolism, including regulating appetite. The smooth running of these functions is crucial to the prevention of neurological diseases and mental health conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and depression

Much research indicates our brains are physically altered when we experience significant stress or depression, and this is connected to altered levels and function of BDNF. By the same token, it has been found that certain therapeutic activities can promote BDNF in key regions which leads to recovery of function, specifically in depression related circuits. In the same way that antidepressants have been found to interact with BDNF supply, so too has physical activity been found to increase BDNF, leading to an antidepressant effect. 

Exercise To Increase BDNF

A focus on improving your brain function through exercise is something to be considered on a longer term scale. Unlike the release of endorphins after an energetic session, the results of exercise to increase BDNF can be recognized after a few months. While this could be disheartening for some, it can also be considered as a greater motivator to persist with a long term exercise routine, not just for the positive physical outcomes, but for long term neurological health benefits which make a significant impact on your overall wellbeing. 

Of all brain building proteins, BDNF has been found to be the most susceptible to regulation by exercise and physical activity. Research indicates a consistent aerobic exercise routine supports a sufficient supply of BDNF.  A sustained moderate-intensity exercise like jogging, power walking or swimming has been found to be incredibly beneficial, with neurological changes observed after as little as eight weeks. One study found seniors aged 60 to 80 who walked 30 to 45 minutes, three days per week for one year, increased the volume of their hippocampus by two percent (as BDNF not only preserves existing brain cells but activates growth of new cells, particularly in the hippocampus). 

A well rounded routine is most likely to produce positive results for brain health and support you in your ability to maintain consistent exercise. These activities include:

  1. High-Intensity Interval (Anaerobic) Training: Alternating short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.
  2. Strength Training: Weight exercises with longer recovery periods.
  3. Core Exercises: Incorporating pilates and yoga for core stability and strength.
  4. Stretching: Helping to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints, along with repairing body tissue. 

Even little changes throughout the day can have a hugely positive impact on your brain health and function. If your work environment encourages sitting for long periods, getting up and walking around every ten minutes can go a long way to preventing the degradation of areas of the brain through low supply of BDNF. 

It all comes down to moving more, more often to see innumerable positive outcomes for body and brain.

For some guidance in exercises that support brain function, Food Matters TV have produced an excellent new exercise video series to help you get the most out of the time you commit to working out. Stay tuned for the release of this!

We’d love to know how you support your brain function through exercise, let us know in the comments what routines work best for you!