Katelyn Sander

BDNF. The best reason to exercise.

Living Well

Written by: Meg Sharp, Fitness & Health Consultant, Cambridge Group of Clubs

BDNF? Best Damn New Friend? Not exactly – although, working out in order to support a friend is a pretty great idea.

In this case though BDNF stands for brain derived neurotrophic factor. Neuro meaning “nerve” and trophos meaning “to feed, nourish, or grow.” The main role of this protein is to protect and build new brain cells as well as increase neuroplasticity. That last bit refers to our brain’s ability to adapt. Specifically, increased neuroplasticity means we are in a better position to think clearly, learn, and retain effectively, form new memories, and cope positively in the face of trauma including events that may have damaged our central nervous system. 

And the evidence is clear: One of the BEST ways to increase BDNF in YOUR brain is through exercise.

Why is this so important?

It will come as no surprise to you that since COVID hit – our mental health has suffered. A lot.

We’ve known for many years that exercise makes us feel better. Reduces anxiety, depression, and stress. Can help us focus better and sometimes even sleep better. For many, exercise boosts self-esteem and even improves how we eat.

The exact mechanisms are complicated and much of that is due to fact that the human brain itself is extremely complicated. Which is a roundabout way of saying there is much that we still don’t know.

But recently, scientists have uncovered that exercise – of differing types, intensities, and duration and targeting different demographics – consistently increases levels of BDNF in the human brain.

  • Increases in BDNF have been recently identified as one of the key mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of many antidepressant medications.
  • Higher levels of BDNF help us better manage stress and anxiety by increasing activity and nervous tissue in the hippocampus – the area of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory and is typically much smaller in individuals struggling with depression and stress. BDNF also helps create heathier connections between the amygdala and the hippocampus to help mitigate the constant fight or flight reactions that can burden a stressed or depressed brain.
  • BDNF helps stave off cravings – including those for alcohol and sugar. And while such penchants are very understandable these days – overconsumption of either doesn’t help our mental or physical wellbeing.
  • Interested in optimal brain function and vitality? BDNF is the ticket! Boost this protein and prepare for better focus, problem solving abilities, memory, mental reaction time, and cognitive prowess overall. In a few words: it keeps your brain young. (It’s too soon to know – but it’s possible increasing BDNF may keep cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s at bay.)

So? Stop reading, get out there, and sweat. 

Exercise in ALL forms is beneficial – so don’t worry about what to do – just get that heart rate up – and hopefully stop worrying about a whole lot of things?!

Author’s Note: Much of the science on exercise and BDNF to date focuses on the positive impact of raising your heart rate significantly (80%+ heart rate reserve) 3-4 times a week for either 20-30 minutes consecutively or accumulatively during an interval workout. That said there is new evidence showing that mindful exercise – like TaiChi and Yoga – are extremely effective as are sports and exercise that requires mental focus such as hiking and trail running.

Looking for ideas? Try this 11-minute workout you can literally do anywhere. Want to really boost BDNF? Do it twice 😊

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