Exercise helps you learn new things and manage stress!
When we exercise, we encourage synaptic plasticity – which is the basis for being able to learn new things. Exercise also spurs the development of NEW nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus. New nerve cells can become whatever we ‘put our mind to’ – literally. Neurons differentiate according to what the brain is being asked to do. The classic ‘use it or lose it’ axiom holds true with brain neurons. If you want to increase your brain activity in a certain way, you have to exercise your brain in that way. Exercise supports your brain’s ability to build the tools you need in order to learn new things and manage stress.
Exercise does these things by increasing something called ‘Brain-derived neurotrophic factor’ or BDNF.
BDNF: Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is “like Miracle-Gro for your brain”, says Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey.(1) BDNF is a protein that stimulates production of new brain cells and strengthens existing ones. BDNF helps you to learn faster, remember better, age slower, and rapidly rewire your brain by increasing your brain’s neuroplasticity and protecting damaged brain cells in stressful situations.
While all exercise will increase BDNF, which increases neuroplasticity and regulates stress, high intensity exercise has the greatest effect. (2)
High intensity exercise is 7 minutes or less of intense exercise to the point of exhaustion, then a little farther, then stop. Duration could be as little as 30 seconds to start. When engaged in high intensity exercise, you are at or above 70% of your maximum heart rate, you will break a sweat in 3-5 minutes and your breathing will be deep and rapid.
Ideally, you will fit in one of these workouts 3-5 days per week.
Here are 3 exercises that you can try to maximize your brain power:
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)- You can find lots of examples of these exercises online. My favorite is with the app ‘7 minute workout’ or ‘7 minute workout pro’. There is a free or paid version of the app and it will provide you with a variety of 7 minute workouts to choose from.
- Go for a 20 minute run, and time yourself for a 7-minute speed interval. I like to combine this with hill climbing. If you can’t make 7 minutes, that’s ok, just get to the point of exhaustion, push a little harder, and then slow down.
- Pick your favorite activity and go all out for 7 minutes! Hike uphill, swim your heart out, cycle until your quads fatigue, roller blade, punch a punching bag, do jumping jacks, kickbox, …. Choose your favorite or, even better, take up something new and build new neurons!
And bear in mind, stress, sugar and social isolation block the production of BDNF…. So manage your stress, don’t overdo the cake and hang with friends regularly!!!
BDNF is a key component of building new neural networks – which we need to learn any new activity. It is especially important if you are rehabilitating from brain injury or chronic illness. By intentionally using high intensity exercise, you can increase your brain’s capacity to develop, heal, and change. You also increase your brain’s ability to manage stress by protecting brain cells.
So, choose your workout and see how long you can sustain a high-intensity level of exercise. Be safe and don’t overdo in the beginning – reaching the 7 minutes is not the ultimate goal – reaching the point of exhaustion for you is the goal. If that happens in 30 seconds, stop there. Over time, you will build endurance. And, if you have underlying health conditions, consider consulting your doctor before engaging in a new type of exercise.