This is the second of a six-part series on brain health from Deborah Schrameck, NC, PT, of the Eisenhower Wellness Institute. Additional articles can be found here.
Nan, my grandmother, understood what worked to keep her brain young and healthy. She never had a driver’s license and she made sure she walked, gardened and even danced on a daily basis. When she broke her hip and was hospitalized, her cognitive decline set in at an alarming rate. The thing that caused the most frustration for her was not being able to get out of bed and move.
Research connecting exercise with brain health has added to our understanding of the mechanisms that make exercise a valuable weapon in the fight against cognitive decline, dementia, depression, and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
I recently had the honor of attending the Institute of Functional Medicine annual conference: The Dynamic Brain. How exciting it was to be among leaders in science and medicine discussing the brain and what we can do to improve our brain health at any age.
One of the mechanisms thoroughly discussed as an important component of a healthy brain – my new favorite acronym – BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF is a protein that promotes brain function and encourages the growth of new neurons. An easy analogy, BDNF is like fertilizer in the garden of our brain. When we’re depleted or running low, exercise and movement can trigger the production of more BDNF and therefore more growth. (For more on BDNF, see Brain Health Top of Mind, p. 17).
Any exercise can increase BDNF levels in the brain, but some types are more effective than others. Here are a few ways that are supported by current research to boost BDNF that we can all incorporate into our routines:
Do something enjoyable. Not only does BDNF increase more with activities we like, but we are more likely to stick with an activity we enjoy, gaining the brain-healthy benefits longer and more frequently.
Do something daily. Daily activity has been shown to be more effective at raising BDNF than less frequent stints of movement.
Make it complex. This is one time where the KISS principle does not apply. In a study done at the University of Illinois, rats that practiced complex motor skills produced more BDNF than rats that only performed aerobic exercise on a wheel. In his book, The Genetics of Health, Dr. Sharad Paul quotes a study by Madeleine Hackney showing that complex movements involving footwork, walking and impulsivity with a partner – the tango, for instance – have the greatest benefit in reducing dementia and improving Parkinson’s disease.
Don’t forget to be social. In the first pillar, I discussed the importance of social interaction and how it can improve brain health. It is often considered one of the best motivators in maintaining a daily active lifestyle.
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 complex functional movements. If these types of activities aren’t already a part of your routine, consider taking a class in dancing (especially tango), martial arts or gymnastics; learn a sport like tennis, pickleball, or rock climbing; or add some agility and balance drills to your workouts. Besides improving brain function and motor skills, these activities can also provide variety, making exercise more fun and sustainable.
I hope to see you in dance class! I’m learning to tango my way to a better brain.
Deborah Schrameck is a wholistic kinesiologist, health coach, nutritional counselor and personal trainer currently working with the Eisenhower Wellness Institute, AcQpoint Acupuncture & Wellness Center and the La Quinta Resort and Club.