Boosting BDNF with Exercise

Boost BDNF with Exercise

In the vibrant dance of life, our brains are the choreographers, guiding every move, thought, and emotion. To keep this dance harmonious, we must nurture our brain health. Enter Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a magical protein that supports the growth, survival, and differentiation of neurons in our brains. Just as nature thrives through movement, so do our minds. Exercise, in its many forms, is one of the most potent ways to elevate BDNF levels. This article explores how exercise, from rhythmic runs to powerful sprints, boosts BDNF and enhances brain health.

Understanding BDNF

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor is a member of the neurotrophin family of growth factors, which are essential for the development and maintenance of the nervous system. It plays a critical role in neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. This process is crucial for learning, memory, and cognitive function. Low levels of BDNF have been linked to various neurodegenerative and mental health disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and anxiety.  It stands out as a significant driving force for enhancing the brain’s neuroplasticity and promoting neurogenesis.

Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity

Neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons, is vital during embryonic development and continues to be important in specific brain areas throughout life. This process underpins memory formation. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself in response to new experiences and environmental changes, is facilitated by BDNF. This adaptability is critical for learning new skills and enhancing the brain’s resilience.

How Exercise Increases BDNF

Exercise is a powerful ally in preserving cognitive function and combating the effects of aging. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) stands out as particularly effective in boosting Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor. During vigorous physical activity, such as HIIT, the production of BDNF in both the brain and muscles increases significantly. This boost is crucial for enhancing neuroplasticity and promoting neurogenesis. By incorporating HIIT into your exercise routine, you can effectively increase BDNF levels, thereby supporting brain health and cognitive resilience.

How Exercise Promotes BDNF Production

  1. Increased Blood Flow to the Brain Physical activity increases heart rate and blood flow, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to brain tissues and stimulating BDNF release.

  2. Activation of the Hippocampus The hippocampus, critical for learning and memory, is particularly responsive to exercise. Physical activity promotes the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, with BDNF playing a key role.

  3. Reduction of Inflammation and Oxidative Stress Exercise lowers inflammation and oxidative stress, which can negatively impact brain function and BDNF levels. By reducing these harmful factors, exercise indirectly supports BDNF production.

  4. Hormonal Influences Exercise triggers the release of various hormones and growth factors, such as endorphins and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which enhance BDNF expression.

The Impact of HIIT on BDNF Levels

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is particularly effective in boosting Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor levels, surpassing the benefits of moderate continuous exercise. Here’s how HIIT enhances BDNF and, subsequently, brain health:

Lactate Production and BDNF Activation

During intense exercise, the body produces lactate, a byproduct of glucose metabolism. Lactate is shuttled from the muscles to various tissues, including the heart and brain, where it serves as an energy source. In the brain, lactate acts as a signaling molecule, activating Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor production. This mechanism highlights the crucial role of lactate in elevating BDNF levels, with HIIT being especially effective.

Optimal Exercise Duration and Intensity

30 Minutes is all you need! Research indicates that moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise of longer duration (around 40 minutes) elicits the greatest effects on BDNF levels. For instance, young, healthy men experienced nearly a one-third increase in BDNF levels after such exercise. However, even shorter sessions, such as 30 minutes, are sufficient to induce sustained improvements in memory, lasting up to 24 hours.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects

The immediate rise in Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor levels post-exercise is short-lived, typically lasting less than an hour. However, the long-term impact of HIIT on BDNF is substantial. Animal studies demonstrate that regular exercise leads to increased neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons in the brain, reinforcing the long-term cognitive benefits of consistent physical activity.

HIIT Versus Prolonged Exercise

Studies show that high-intensity cycling intervals significantly outperform prolonged low-intensity cycling in boosting BDNF. For example, six 40-second intervals at peak intensity can increase circulating BDNF levels by four to five times more than 90 minutes of low-intensity cycling. This dramatic increase in plasma BDNF correlates with a sixfold increase in plasma lactate, emphasizing the efficiency of HIIT.

Benefits for Older Adults

In older adults, regular participation in high-intensity exercise programs, such as a six-month dance regimen, has been shown to increase brain volumes in areas crucial for memory and significantly raise plasma BDNF levels. This suggests that HIIT can be particularly beneficial for aging populations, enhancing both brain structure and function.

The Mechanistic Role of BDNF

BDNF is vital for cognitive improvements. Animal studies have shown that blocking BDNF negates the cognitive benefits of exercise, underscoring the essential link between physical activity and brain health. HIIT, by significantly boosting BDNF levels, plays a crucial role in enhancing cognitive function, neuroplasticity, and overall brain health.

More Lifestyle Practices to Boost BDNF

While exercise is my favorite way to boost BDNF, there are several other lifestyle practices can also help.  Here are some additional strategies to consider:

Sauna and Hot Baths

Heat exposure through saunas or hot baths can significantly increase BDNF levels. The heat stress from these practices promotes the production of heat shock proteins and other molecules that enhance BDNF expression. Regular use of saunas or hot baths can improve mood, support neuroplasticity, and enhance overall brain function. See more benefits of sauna use.


Meditation is a powerful tool for boosting BDNF levels and improving brain health. Mindfulness and other forms of meditation reduce stress, a known inhibitor of BDNF production. By lowering cortisol levels and promoting a state of relaxation, meditation helps increase BDNF, supporting cognitive function and emotional well-being.


Certain supplements have been shown to elevate BDNF levels and support brain health expression. 

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fish oil, flaxseed, and chia seeds, omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health. They increase BDNF levels, promote neuroplasticity, and support cognitive function. 
  • Probiotics: A healthy gut microbiome is crucial for brain health. Probiotics, found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, or taken as supplements, can enhance BDNF production by improving gut-brain communication. 
  • Zinc: This essential mineral is involved in numerous biological processes, including BDNF production. Foods rich in zinc, such as nuts, seeds, and legumes, or zinc supplements, can help maintain optimal BDNF levels. 

Lion's Mane

Lion's Mane mushroom which can significantly boost BDNF levels

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a medicinal mushroom known for its neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing properties. Research has shown that Lion’s Mane can significantly boost Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) levels, making it a valuable addition to any regimen aimed at improving brain health.

How Lion’s Mane Boosts BDNF:

Lion’s Mane contains bioactive compounds, such as hericenones and erinacines, which stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) and BDNF. These compounds promote the growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons, thereby enhancing neuroplasticity and cognitive function.

BDNF Essentials

BDNF Essentials® is a comprehensive supplement with Lio’s Mane designed to support the brain’s formation of nerve growth factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which promote neuroplasticity, and neurogenesis. This unique formulation promotes healthy:*

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is a medicinal mushroom known for its neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing properties. Research has shown that Lion’s Mane can significantly boost Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor levels, making it a valuable addition to any regimen aimed at improving brain health.

In Conclusion

Exercise remains my go-to strategy for boosting Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) and supporting brain health. Its powerful effects on neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and overall cognitive function make it an indispensable part of any brain-boosting regimen. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), in particular, stands out for its efficiency and effectiveness in elevating BDNF levels.

While other lifestyle practices like sauna sessions, meditation, and targeted supplementation can also enhance BDNF production, exercise provides a comprehensive approach that combines physical, mental, and emotional benefits. By integrating regular exercise with these additional strategies, you can create a holistic plan to support brain health, improve memory, and foster cognitive resilience.

Ultimately, the key to maintaining and enhancing brain function lies in a balanced, multifaceted approach. Embrace the power of movement, nourish your body with the right nutrients, and cultivate mindfulness to give your brain the boost it deserves.

❤️ Wendy Finkelstein, PA-C

Book a Consult with me: 561-283-1166

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Wendy Finkelstein, PA-C

Wendy Finkelstein is a board-certified Physician Assistant who believes that aging is a call for celebration and an opportunity to feel grateful for your body and its incredible ability to transform. Wendy believes that deconstructing the common paradigms of the aging process can fully help us to embrace our youth at any age. With a focus on mitochondrial repair, Wendy approaches Functional Medicine from the cellular level.

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