All exercise impacts our brains. But what if you want a workout that helps your brain grow, no matter how old you are?
If so, you should be asking about the best exercise for BDNF levels. That’s because BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is crucial to maintaining neurogenesis – your brain’s ability to grow neurons.
Researchers once thought that our brains stop developing after infancy and couldn’t replace lost or damaged neurons.
However, the arrival of brain-imaging equipment revealed that our brains do keep growing – throughout our lives!
We now know increasing our BDNF levels stimulates the growth of the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory performance.
Research has also discovered that lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise, greatly influence our BDNF levels. And not just any workout will do!
So what’s the best exercise for BDNF production? For improved BDNF levels and cognition scores, there is evidence that intense anaerobic exercise is the way to go!
The Best Exercise for BDNF = Oxygen-Deprivation Exercise
During anaerobic exercise, the body’s demand for oxygen outstrips its supply. Think sprinting or a fast-paced calisthenics session.
A 2007 study split 27 healthy participants into three groups.
- Group 1 conducted high-impact anaerobic sprints.
- Group 2 conducted low-impact aerobic exercise.
- Group 3 was inactive.
Not only did the high-impact group experience the most significant increase in BDNF concentration; they also learned difficult vocabulary words 20 percent more quickly than the other two groups.
Further research found a dose-response relationship between the amount of physical exercise and BDNF levels. Meaning that the more intense a person’s workouts are, the stronger their brain will become.
In a small study from the German Sport University of Cologne, eight healthy males had unchanged BDNF levels after a 10-minute aerobic warmup. But when they followed up with a short-duration, high-intensity workout to the “point of exhaustion,” their BDNF rose.
And the authors of this 2019 study published in the reputable British Journal of Sports Medicine divided 65 sedentary overweight or obese participants (aged 55 to 80) into three categories.
The first group sat around for eight hours.
The second group followed one hour of sitting with 30 minutes of moderate-intensity treadmill walking and then remained sedentary for 6.5 hours.
The third group sat for one hour, exercised for 30 minutes, and then took a 3-minute light walking break every 30 minutes for the rest of their eight-hour day.
Throughout the day, the participants completed multiple tests of their:
- psychomotor function
- executive function
- visual learning
and working memory. The researchers also tested their BDNF levels several times.
Significantly, both groups exercising in the morning saw a marked increase in BDNF over the sedentary participants. They also scored higher on cognitive tests.
Finally, in this Spanish-run study, participants completing just one exercise session showed a two- to three-fold increase in BDNF concentration compared to a sedentary group.
The Best Exercise for BDNF Levels in The Elderly
Although anaerobic activities may be the best exercise for BDNF, the brain-boosting benefits of regular aerobic exercise for the elderly deserve attention.
A group of 18 researchers from four U.S. educational institutions designed a randomized trial to test the effects that one year of moderate exercise would have on memory function.
The trial’s 120 participants, aged 55 to 80, were old enough to be at risk of “hippocampal volume loss.” Each was assigned either to a moderate-intensity walking or a stretching control group. All exercised three times weekly for one year.
By the trial’s end, the aerobic walking group had achieved an average 2-percent increase in hippocampus volume, along with higher BDNF levels. The stretching group, however, averaged a 1.4-percent decline.
Not only did the walking group’s brains grow bigger through exercise, but their increased hippocampal volume also resulted in improved memory!
The Best Exercise for BDNF Levels in Teens
Not just the elderly enjoy enhanced brain function with regular exercise. This meta-analysis reviewed the evidence supporting the best exercise for BDNF in teens.
It concluded teens who work out three to five times weekly with 20 to 60 minutes of moderate “high-intensity aerobic exercises” achieve higher BDNF concentrations and stronger cognitive performance.
So what does the evidence tell us about the best exercise for BDNF?
Essentially, regular, moderate- to high-intensity aerobic and anaerobic exercises will do great things for your BDNF, cognitive skills, and memory!