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Six minutes of high-intensity exercise vital for brain health, study says

A new study finds six minutes of high-intensity cycling could delay the onset of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. File photo by Air Images/Shutterstock
A new study finds six minutes of high-intensity cycling could delay the onset of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. File photo by Air Images/Shutterstock

Jan. 12 (UPI) -- A new study finds six minutes of high-intensity cycling could delay the onset of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

The study, published Wednesday in The Journal of Physiology, found short but intense bouts of exercise increased production of a specialized protein vital for brain formation, learning and memory that could extend the lifespan of a healthy brain.

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The specialized protein, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, promotes neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to form new connections and pathways. BDNF also promotes the survival of neurons and has become a key focus in studies about aging, according to researchers at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

"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," said lead author Travis Gibbons of the University of Otago, New Zealand. "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."

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Researchers also examined the influence of fasting on BDNF production, alone and combined with various forms of exercise.

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They had 12 physically active men and women, between the ages of 18 and 56 years of age, fast for 20 hours, exercise at low-intensity for 90 minutes and exercise at high-intensity for six minutes, as well as combining the fasting and exercise.

Overall, researchers found the brief, but vigorous exercise was the most efficient way to increase BDNF compared to fasting with or without a lengthy session of light exercise. BDNF increased four to five times more with brief, intense exercise over fasting or prolonged exercise.

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While more research is needed, the study hypothesizes that the increase in BDNF could be related to the cerebral substrate switch and glucose metabolism, which is the brain's main fuel source. With the shorter and high-intensity exercise, the brain transition from consuming glucose to lactate initiates pathways to elevate BDNF levels in the blood.

Researchers also speculate that an increase in BDNF during exercise could be due to a higher concentration of platelets, which store large amounts of BDNF.

Researchers in the study are continuing to analyze the effects of calorie restriction and exercise on BDNF and brain health.

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"We are curious whether exercising hard at the start of a fast accelerates the beneficial effects of fasting," 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."

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