With Alzheimer's on the rise and expected to nearly triple in incidence by 2050, it's amazing how many people continue to hit the gym with the same goals they've always had: a smaller waist, bigger biceps, and six-pack abs. But while they're sweating it out on the elliptical, they're forgetting one of the most important muscles in their body - the brain.


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While research connecting exercise with brain health has only taken off in the last few decades, we're beginning to understand some of the mechanisms that make exercise a valuable weapon in the fight against cognitive decline, depression, and diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.


One of those mechanisms that's been repeatedly identified as an important component of a healthy brain is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that promotes brain function and encourages the growth of new neurons. It’s basically like gas in the engine of the brain. And when you're running on empty, the right kind of exercise can trigger the production of more fuel, or in this case, BDNF.


"By beginning to incorporate these concepts into your training now, you can prevent debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s, prevent or lessen symptoms of depression, and keep your body and mind functioning at its best."

Any exercise can increase BDNF levels in the brain, but some types are more effective than others. While more extensive research is needed, researchers have begun to develop some general recommendations for brain-healthy exercise based on the preliminary studies. Here are a few ways to boost BDNF that everyone can incorporate into their workout routine:


1. Find Something You Enjoy

One important observation made by researchers is the difference between forced and voluntary exercise. Voluntary exercise has been shown to elicit a bigger increase in BDNF and other growth factors. Not to mention you'll be more likely to stick with an activity you enjoy, which means you'll reap more of the brain-healthy benefits of longer-term exercise. 


2. Incorporate Activities With a High Reward:Failure Ratio

In other words, do something a little risky. The stationary bike is fine, but it’s also safe. You’ll use more of your brain and generate more BDNF with an activity that requires some level of risk, like rock climbing or stand-up paddleboarding. Often, these types of activities also teach complex motor skills, another way of boosting BDNF.



3. Do Something Daily

Researchers have found that daily exercise is more effective than less frequent bouts of activity, especially in the beginning of a fitness program. So instead of waiting until Saturday to head out for a ten-mile run, try splitting those miles up throughout the week. Five two-mile runs may be more beneficial for your body and your brain.


4. Add Some Sprints to Your Routine

Studies have proven you can get more bang for your buck when it comes to BDNF and brain health by incorporating intervals into your training. While steady-state cardio is certainly better than no cardio, even adding a few two-minute sprints to your run can boost BDNF production and have a positive effect on overall brain function. 


5. Practice Complex Motor Skills

Most studies on BDNF have involved lab rats, but much of the knowledge gained can be applied to the human population. In a study done by William Greenough at the University of Illinois, rats that practiced complex motor skills produced more BDNF than rats that only performed aerobic exercise on a wheel. While both groups of rats benefitted from the activity, the acrobatic rats fared better on tests of BDNF and growth factor levels than the strictly aerobic rats.


"Besides improving motor skills, these activities can provide variety and prevent boredom."

What does this mean for us? Don’t give up your cardio, but remember to include some exercises in your routine that involve coordination, agility and reactionary elements. If these types of activities aren’t already a part of your regimen, consider taking a class in martial arts or gymnastics; learning a sport like tennis, spikeball, or rock climbing; or adding some agility and balance drills to your workouts. Besides improving motor skills, these activities can provide variety and prevent boredom.


6. Be Social

Social interaction can stimulate the brain and is often considered one of the best motivators in maintaining an active lifestyle. The sensory stimulation provided by other people forces neurons to adapt by making new connections, and studies are continuing to reveal the importance of connecting with others. For example, researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that people who feel lonely are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s. So join a team, hire a personal trainer, or train with a group of friends for an upcoming event, like a 5K or marathon.


7. Get Outside

While more studies are needed to confirm a link between the outdoors and BDNF levels, we do know the natural environment has an impact on physical activity and the brain. Sunshine and vitamin D may contribute to higher levels of BDNF, according to researchers in the Netherlands who observed a significant seasonal variation in levels. Exercising outdoors, specifically in quiet, green spaces, can effect blood flow in the brain and reduce stress, a major factor in brain function and general physical health. This also alleviates many of the symptoms of depression, which have been linked directly to BDNF. And no expert will argue that a little fresh air and sunshine is probably beneficial for everyone.



Exercise Is for Your Brain, Too

The next time you head to the gym for a workout or outside for a run, remember you’re not only working your quads and pecs. You may lose some of that muscle mass as you age, but you don’t have to lose cognitive function.


By beginning to incorporate these concepts into your training now, you can prevent debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s, prevent or lessen symptoms of depression, and keep your body and mind functioning at its best. Plus, as exercise becomes a habit, your body will adapt by becoming more efficient at producing BDNF and the other growth factors important to brain health.


So grab a buddy, head outside, and get creative with your next workout. Your brain will thank you for it.


More Like This:



1. Cotman, Carl W., Nicole C. Berchtold, and Lori-Ann Christie. "Exercise Builds Brain Health: Key Roles of Growth Factor Cascades and Inflammation." Trends in Neurosciences 30, no. 9, 464-72.

2. Perlmutter, David. "How Sunshine Builds a Better Brain." David Perlmutter MD. Accessed August 12, 2015.

3. Ratey, John J., and Eric Hagerman. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown, 2008.

 4. Reynolds, Gretchen. "How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain." The New York Times. July 22, 2015. Accessed August 12, 2015.


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