GUEST POST: Is your New Year’s resolution promoting brain health?

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January 9, 2018

Ty “the Neuro Guy” McKinney is a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Utah and the Research Director for Branch Out Neurological Foundation. Inspired by the creative knowledge translation, Ty helps promote scientific literacy through this blog. You can look forward to an article each month helping explain the science of NeuroCAM. If you have any questions or comments about this article or overall blog, feel free to email Ty McKinney at

Is one of your New Year’s Resolutions to get back to the gym? I have some good news for you. Exercise has excellent benefits for your brain. It’s common knowledge that working out is beneficial for our bodies, but what isn’t common knowledge is how it benefits our bodies, specifically our brains. Read more about how physical activity promotes neuroplasticity and in turn brain health.

At the dawn of the new year, we often try to make resolutions to improve ourselves so that this year might be a bit better than the last. Becoming more physically active a popular one and it’s certainly on my list! Accomplishing this goal can bring a flurry of health benefits to those (like myself) who have often neglected their gym bags. It’s common knowledge that working out is beneficial for our bodies, but what isn’t common knowledge is how it benefits our bodies, specifically our brains.

The single most amazing property of the brain is a thing called neuroplasticity. The brain can change itself based on its experience. Your ability to ride a bike, memorize a phone number (because we all still do that right!?) and recognize your grandmother’s face is all because of neuroplasticity. In each instance, your brain collects information and physically re-wires to integrate as that information could be useful in the future. One way we can estimate how plastic a person’s brain is through Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a chemical in our brains that promotes neuroplasticity and brain growth. People struggling with depression and schizophrenia have been found to have lower amounts of BDNF in their brain (Brunoni, et al., 2008; Green, et al, 2011), suggesting that their brain may have a reduced ability to learn and change from their experiences. Additionally, genetic differences that predispose people to low BDNF have been found to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, though only for women (Fukomoto, et al., 2010). After reading this you’re probably wondering:

1) How can I get my BDNF levels up? And 2) What does neuroplasticity and BDNF have to do with my New Year’s Resolution of hitting the gym three times a week?

Well, it turns out that aerobic exercise (think cardio; not lifting) has some evidence of promoting neuroplasticity through BDNF. A study found that just a half hour of cardio raised BDNF levels which promoted performance on a memory test (Griffin, et al, 2011), with a rodent study finding a similar pattern for long-term exercise (Vaynman, et al, 2004). This increased BDNF does, in fact, seem to be beneficial for our brains. As a meta-analysis* in 2013 (Silviera, et al) found, aerobic exercise was effective at lowering depression scores (though older adults and those with mild depression observed the most significant benefits). Another meta-analysis (Wipfli, 2008) found exercise resulted in significant decreases in anxiety symptoms, which was found to be just as effective as psychotherapy (think science-based counseling) and pharmacotherapy (think drug treatment). The benefits of exercise might go beyond emotions too, as another meta-analysis (Smith, 2010) found small boosts in attention, memory and thinking/reasoning skills after at least a month of cardio training. Perhaps the most exciting finding comes from your grandma’s New Years Resolution to get more active (do grandmas “hit the gym”?). As we age, our brain starts to accumulate problems, but a meta-analysis (Sofi, 2011) found that older adults that engaged in any physical activity (not just those keeping up with their grandchildren at the gym) were on average 33% less likely to show a cognitive decline compared to older adults who reported sitting most days. While physical activity has many benefits, it is important to note that it is not a replacement for proper medical and mental health care. While exercise promotes BDNF and neuroplasticity, a more malleable brain in and of itself isn’t going to change for the better but could make other treatments more effective. It might be best to think about your running routine as the cherry on the cake for your mental and physical health; it could make all the difference but isn’t a replacement for the cake itself.

As you read this, I hope you have renewed motivation to stick to your New Years resolution of hitting the gym. While you probably knew it would give you a healthy heart, now you know that it will provide you with a healthy, plastic, BDNF-filled brain too! Sticking to your fitness goals can boost your mood and help keep mental health problems in check. Furthermore, your gym routine could help you think more clearly, which means increased productivity at work and home! Even if you start to fall behind, many of the studies also show benefits from a single work out session. Going for a light jog at lunch could provide you the boost you need to get through those Monday afternoon blues. I know that sticking to a gym routine can be difficult, but it could be a great foundation to make your 2018 better than 2017!

*A meta-analysis is an analysis of many already published studies. There are many reasons why any single study may or may not show an effect of interest (say a benefit of physical activity), but a meta-analysis allows us to look at the general trends across studies and not be led astray from a single red herring study. Where ever possible, I use meta-analyses because they provide a more reliable picture of scientific research.


Sofi, F., Valecchi, D., Bacci, D., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Macchi, C. (2011). Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: a meta‐analysis of prospective studies. Journal of internal medicine, 269(1), 107-117.

Silveira, H., Moraes, H., Oliveira, N., Coutinho, E. S. F., Laks, J., & Deslandes, A. (2013). Physical exercise and clinically depressed patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuropsychobiology, 67(2), 61-68.

Green, M. J., Matheson, S. L., Shepherd, A., Weickert, C. S., & Carr, V. J. (2011). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels in schizophrenia: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Molecular Psychiatry, 16(9), 960-972.

Brunoni, A. R., Lopes, M., & Fregni, F. (2008). A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical studies on major depression and BDNF levels: implications for the role of neuroplasticity in depression. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 11(8), 1169-1180.

Shim, S. H., Hwangbo, Y., Kwon, Y. J., Jeong, H. Y., Lee, B. H., Lee, H. J., & Kim, Y. K. (2008). Increased levels of plasma brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 32(8), 1824-1828.

Fukumoto, N., Fujii, T., Combarros, O., Kamboh, M. I., Tsai, S. J., Matsushita, S., … & Hyman, B. T. (2010). Sexually dimorphic effect of the Val66Met polymorphism of BDNF on susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease: New data and meta‐analysis. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics, 153(1), 235-242.

Heinrich, C., Lähteinen, S., Suzuki, F., Anne-Marie, L., Huber, S., Häussler, U., … & Depaulis, A. (2011). Increase in BDNF-mediated TrkB signaling promotes epileptogenesis in a mouse model of mesial temporal lobe epilepsy. Neurobiology of disease, 42(1), 35-47.

Griffin, É. W., Mullally, S., Foley, C., Warmington, S. A., O’Mara, S. M., & Kelly, Á. M. (2011). Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Physiology & behavior, 104(5), 934-941.

Vaynman, S., Ying, Z., & Gomez‐Pinilla, F. (2004). Hippocampal BDNF mediates the efficacy of exercise on synaptic plasticity and cognition. European Journal of Neuroscience, 20(10), 2580-2590.

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