need a brain boost? simple, not easy

Jan 27

Last week we discussed new and fascinating research that holds great promise for the "non-exercise intense movers" - those folks who may not formally use their leisure time to play a sport or go to the gym, but still can get many of the associated health benefits (as measured by risk reduction of dying of any cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer) because, in their normal day to day, they get "enough" - which turned out to be at least 2-3 bursts of intense physical activity (+/- 75% of their max), lasting 1-2 minutes each. Sure there are many benefits of leisure-time physical activity (aka exercise) and this couldn't account for all of them - for example, the "stress melting" benefit of a planned hike or the positive mental health benefits that accompany the achievement of some new feat - but, the big win, significantly less risk associated with 2 of the top health risks we face, in a few minutes per day, is certainly powerful.

For many, however, it's not an either/or but a both/and. These are people who both love to compete, feel great when deliberate exercise is part of the day, and want to make it a priority but often feel strapped for time when they have the energy and sapped of energy when they have the time. For people like this, whether it's a few hard efforts in a stairwell or push-ups by the side of the bed, there is something powerful in knowing that a few minutes can go a very long way, since many of the great health-promoting benefits from exercise come front-loaded in the first few minutes.

But what if it's not a cardiovascular or anti-cancer benefit we are looking for? What if it's brain health we are after? Can we fend off diseases of the brain similarly to how we appear to be able to fend off diseases of the heart? According to a new small study from a team in New Zealand, the idea has merit.

Building on research which showed that under the right conditions, even a single bout of moderate-intensity exercise (30 minutes of brisk walking for example) could stimulate the brain to produce greater amounts of BDNF (a protein that is critical for its role in brain health and repair after injury), the team compared a variety of exercise protocols. While low-intensity physical activity (light pedaling a stationary bike) showed some small gains, max-intensity interval bursts (pedaling as hard as possible) lasting 40 seconds and repeated 6 times, almost the exact same "dose" as the incidental bursts we reported on last week (3-6 minutes of high-intensity work per day), more than quadrupled the effect.

Simple and quick, but definitely not easy.

Here's the good news: even the busiest among us can likely invest 6 minutes in our health...which is enough to cut our heart, cancer, mortality, and now brain-health risk. Not too shabby.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.