Exercise benefits the body in so many different ways. Exercise has the ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, increase muscle strength, increase cardiovascular endurance, increase endorphins, boost your mood, and even help decrease stress and anxiety. But did you know that aerobic exercise, such as running, walking, and cycling, can directly influence the parts of your brain that control thinking, memory, and learning? Multiple studies have been published to show that aerobic exercise boosts the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that helps improve neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Simply said, BDNF improves memory by strengthening the connection between two neurons when activated together and also increases growth of dendrites on axons! Other than improving learning and memory, BDNF levels are also related to increased VO2Max, lower BMI ratios, decreased triglyceride levels, and decreased total cholesterol levels.
Now you’re wondering, how hard to I have to exercise to increase my BDNF levels? The answer is, shoot to exercise at a level that raises your heart rate to 70% of it’s maximum. A new study shows that exercising at higher heart rate levels may even be better for the production of BDNF, so if you want to push yourself a little harder, go for it! In addition, the increase of BDNF lasts about 1 hour after exercise, so there’s a small window for its effects. Therefore, if you’re learning a new skill or topic, try to go for a run or a quick bike ride and then study your new materials right after!
I have even more good news to share with all of you. Sleep has also been shown to enhance the formation of memories! When you’re learning something new, there are 3 stages that the skill or piece of knowledge goes through before it’s placed in the long-term memory part of your brain. The first stage is the ‘encoding’ stage, where the memory is formed. Next, you enter the ‘consolidation’ stage, where the skill or memory becomes more permanent. Lastly, you enter the ‘storage’ stage, where the skill or memory is stored into the long-term memory section of your brain, where it can be brought out of storage whenever needed. Sleeping helps with the consolidation stage of learning! A study was published that showed the learning of fine motor tasks was greater after a 90-minute nap immediately following a practice session.
So if you’re hoping to learn a new skill, learn a new language, or improve your memory, try incorporating short bouts of aerobic exercise between your practice or study sessions, followed by a quick nap afterwards!
Maggie Nguyen, PT, DPT