Just six minutes of intense exercise every day can boost the brain’s lifespan and delay the onset of neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, according to a new study.
The research, published last week in The Journal of Physiology, found that a short but intense bout of cycling can increase the production of a special brain protein linked to brain formation, learning, and memory.
Scientists, including those from the University of Otago in New Zealand, say the special protein named brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) can protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline.
Previous studies have shown that increasing the availability of BDNF in the brain encourages the formation and storage of memories, enhances learning, and also boosts cognitive performance overall.
“BDNF has shown great promise in animal models, but pharmaceutical interventions have thus far failed to safely harness the protective power of BDNF in humans,” study lead author Travis Gibbons from the University of Otago said in a statement.
“We saw the need to explore non-pharmacological approaches that can preserve the brain’s capacity which humans can use to naturally increase BDNF to help with healthy aging,” Dr Gibbons said.
In the new study, researchers analysed the influence of fasting and exercise on BDNF production in 12 physically active participants – six males and six females aged between 18 and 56 years.
They assessed the contributing role played on this protein’s production by factors such as fasting for 20 hours, light exercise, a six-minute bout of high-intensity vigorous cycling, and the combined effects of fasting and exercise.
Scientists found that brief, but vigorous, exercise was the best way to increase BDNF compared to one day of fasting with or without a lengthy session of light exercise.
Researchers say BDNF increased by a factor of four to five times compared to fasting, or prolonged activity.
“Six minutes of high-intensity cycling intervals increased every metric of circulating BDNF by 4 to 5 times more than prolonged low-intensity cycling,” researchers wrote in the study.
However the cause for these differences remains unknown, they say, adding that more research is needed to understand the biological mechanisms involved.
Scientists suspect the brain may be switching its favoured fuel source during exercise for another to ensure the body’s energy demands are met.
“We are now studying how fasting for longer durations, for example up to three days, influences BDNF. We are curious whether exercising hard at the start of a fast accelerates the beneficial effects of fasting,” Dr Gibbons said.
“Fasting and exercise are rarely studied together. We think fasting and exercise can be used in conjunction to optimize BDNF production in the human brain,” he added.