Six Minutes of HIIT Cycling May Delay Alzheimer's

HIIT May Delay Alzheimer's

What you can do now

Six minutes of intense exercise may extend the lifespan of a healthy brain and delay Alzheimer’s.

A new study in the Journal of Physiology found that just six minutes of intense exercise may be able to protect the brain from neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

How is this possible?

The University of Otago, New Zealand study showed that short bursts of intense exercise have the power to increase the production of a special protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the brain. This protein is responsible for helping the brain do a number of key things including:

  • Form new connections, aka neuroplasticity

  • Improve memory and overall cognitive performance

  • Protect the brain from age-related decline

Research shows that a BDNF deficiency can lead to neurodegeneration, so finding ways to boost BDNF could be one key factor in supporting brain health and fighting off neurodegenerative disease.  

A Gap in BDNF Research in Humans

BDNF has shown potential for protecting the brain in animal studies, but so far, attempts to use drugs to harness this potential in humans have not been successful and safe. According to the study’s lead author Travis Gibbons, “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.”

And that’s exactly what the team of researchers did. They recruited 12 physically active participants (six males and six females between the ages of 18 and 56) to see how fasting and exercise would affect BDNF production. 

The Study 

So how did it work?

The study measured the benefits of different types of exercise and/or fasting interventions among its 12 participants. They included:

  • Fasting for 20 hours

  • Light exercise (90 minutes of low-intensity cycling)

  • High-intensity exercise (six minutes of intense cycling)

  • Combination of both fasting and exercise

The results showed that short and intense exercise was the best way to increase BDNF.

In fact, researchers found that short spurts of intense exercise increased BDNF levels by a staggering 4 to 5 times more than fasting or light exercise alone. Fasting didn’t increase BDNF levels at all, and light exercise only resulted in a small increase in BDNF. 

Why is there such a difference in BDNF levels? Scientists aren’t quite sure and recognize that more research needs to be done. However, they do have some hypotheses about these varying levels of BDNF. 

The first hypothesis is related to the brain's fuel source and glucose metabolism. During exercise, the brain switches from consuming glucose to lactate, which triggers pathways that result in higher BDNF levels in the blood. 

Scientists also think that the increase in BDNF during exercise could also be due to the increased number of platelets in the blood, which store BDNF. This increased number of platelets seems to be more affected by exercise than fasting.

Continued Research

The researchers from this University of Otago, New Zealand study are continuing their research and now looking at the effects of fasting for longer durations on BDNF levels -– up to three days of fasting. They are also exploring whether exercising hard at the beginning of a fast can increase the benefits of fasting on BDNF production.

In Summary

This exciting new study shows that a short but intense burst of exercise can increase BDNF production in the brain and potentially promote healthy aging. Further research is needed to understand exactly how BDNF production works, as well as how fasting and exercise can be used together to optimize BDNF production.