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Exercise and Brain Health

Thrive Carolinas / Blog  / Exercise and Brain Health

Exercise and Brain Health

Dr. Amy Fletcher

Dr. Amy Fletcher

As we age maintaining a sharp mind gains increasing priority.

We devote a lot of time focusing on optimal nutrition, gut health, immune support, and chronic disease prevention. Over the past several decades, our understanding of the brain and neurocognitive health has dramatically expanded. We are becoming more aware of the key factors that help determine the health of the brain.

One of the most important factors for optimal brain health is a compound known as BDNF.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is a primary brain protein or neurotrophin that directly influences brain function as well as peripheral nerve function and mental health. One way to think about BDNF is as a “brain fertilizer”. It helps to optimize how your brain works on a daily basis. Normal levels cannot prevent or cure neurocognitive problems but can ensure that your brain does perform at its best. BDNF is not a magic bullet but a necessary compound which you need to optimize to ensure you preserve cognitive health.

Nearly every state of poor cognitive function is associated with low levels of BDNF.

This includes Alzheimer’s, accelerated aging, poor neural developments, neurotransmitter dysfunction, depression, and even obesity. Expanding research is highlighting that BDNF provides many functions including prevention of death of existing brain cells, inducing growth of new neurons, and supporting cognitive function.

It is normal for BDNF to decline with age but there are many things you can do to halt or slow this process.

About 1/3 of the population can have a genetic SNP/mutation which increases the rate of loss ….even more reason to be mindful of proactive habits.

The encouraging fact is that we have demonstrated in countless studies that exercise can improve brain health.

We now know that this is in part due to improvement in certain proteins such as BDNF. In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, reduction in the stress hormone, and reduction in inflammation, exercise can develop your Cognitive Fitness. Every yoga class, peloton workout, lap in the pool, or stride on your walk/ run is one step closer to improved cognitive health. A study on older active adults conducted over 20 years demonstrated that every increase in physical exercise by one standard deviation resulted in a 30% risk reduction for dementia. Time to get off the couch and get moving!

The verdict is still out on the best form of exercise.

Previous studies primarily looked at cardiovascular or aerobic exercise, but newer studies have highlighted low-intensity exercises such as yoga, tai chi, and resistance training. Achieving a goal of 150 min per week at 60-75% intensity has been shown to improve your levels of BDNF and subsequently improve brain health. Mentally stimulating exercises such as crosswords, puzzles, word games, and even meditation can have added benefits to exercise the mind.

Hopefully, this increased understanding of exercise and brain health will motivate you to get in your daily steps and boost your BDNF production. Exercise is the primary means to improve BDNF but the following have also been demonstrated to impact levels. Why not focus on more of these?

Top 10 ways to improve BDNF

  1. Exercise = 150min (30 min 5x per week) at 60-75% intensity
  2. Intermittent fasting and/or caloric restriction
  3. Avoiding refined sugar and saturated fat
  4. Adequate sunlight exposure/vitamin D
  5. Manage stress – elevated stress/cortisol reduced BDNF levels
  6. Lose weight – studies show obese patients have lower levels of BDNF
  7. Eat oily fish / Omega 3 rich fish – DHA and EFA improve BDNF levels (better than supplements)
  8. Stay engaged socially – nurturing relationships improve BDNF levels
  9. Ensure good prebiotic foods – gut bacteria convert these to n-butyrate which boosts BDNF
  10. Supplements and/or dietary superfoods – Curcumin, Green tea/EGCG, Resveratrol, and EFAs
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