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Got six minutes? You could already protect your brain

by Leila Salaverria

BASHA, a 26-year-old US-based nurse, is so busy with work that she hardly has time for exercise.

The only physical activity she gets is her daily walk between home and the hospital where she works.

Trisha, a 32-year-old writer, is also less active now because of her work and home responsibilities.

But both would be willing to exercise for a few minutes at a time if this would already bring them some health benefits. 

It turns out that they may not need to spend hours at gym if they want to use exercise to protect their brain from deterioration. 

Just six minutes of high-intensity exercise could keep the brain healthier longer and delay the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, according to new research published in The Journal of Physiology.

This is because the intense activity produces a specialized protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that is involved in neuroplasticity, learning and memory. 

Researchers from the University of Otago, New Zealand led the study. 

The Physiological Society, the largest network of physiologists in Europe, said the findings suggest an accessible way to manage aging.  

“This insight on exercise is part of the drive to develop accessible, equitable and affordable non-pharmacological approaches that anyone can adopt to promote healthy ageing,” it said in a press statement

What does intense exercise do? 

According to the research, the short bout of intense exercise increased every metric of circulating BDNF by four to five times more than prolonged low-intensity exercise. In the study, the subjects did high-intensity cycling intervals and low-intensity cycling.

The Physiological Society said BDNF promotes neuroplasticity. This refers to the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways, as well as the survival of neurons. 

“The observed increase in BDNF during exercise could be due to the increased number of platelets (the smallest blood cell) which store large amounts of BDNF. The concentration of platelets circulating in the blood is more heavily influenced by exercise than fasting and increases by 20%,” the group said. 

Other factors studied 

In their study, the researchers took a look at the effects of several activities on BDNF production.

They studied fasting for 20 hours, light exercise, high-intensity exercise, and combined fasting and exercise. 

And they found that a short but vigorous spurt of exercise was the most efficient way to increase BDNF compared to the other methods.

“Compared to 1 day of fasting with or without prolonged light exercise, high-intensity exercise is a much more efficient means to increase BDNF in circulation,” the study said. 

Animal studies 

The Physiological Society said there has been an interest in BDNF because animal studies showed that more BDNF encourages the formation and storage of memories, enhances learning and overall boosts cognitive performance.

The study’s lead author Travis Gibbons said the group wanted to look into ways to protect brain health without resorting to drugs. 

“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. 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 ageing,” Gibbons said. 

More research to be done 

Gibbons said the team would be looking into the effects of calorie restriction and exercise on brain health.

“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. Fasting and exercise are rarely studied together. We think fasting and exercise can be used in conjunction to optimise BDNF production in the human brain,” he said.

Motivated to move 

Basha said she’s aware of efforts to find ways to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent certain diseases. She’s also willing to test them out.

“Plus, madaming benefits and pag e-exercise, mahirap lang talaga siya gawing habit,” she said. 

Trisha said that at the moment, she is spending most of her free time on relaxing activities such as reading, painting, and playing with her cat.

But if a few moments of intense movement would bring her health benefits, she could try it out. 

“If it just takes six minutes a day, I should really put more effort in exercising more,” she said. 



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