Some recent research has shed further light on the type of exercise and the mechanisms behind the influence of exercise on both brain function and ageing. Researchers compared the effects of fasting, longer bouts of light intensity exercise, short and high intensity exercise and combined fasting and exercise on a protein named brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF has been shown to promote neuroplasticity and influences the survival of neurons.
The results of the study showed that brief high intensity exercise was the most effective way to increase BDNF compared to the other methods, with a four to five fold increase observed. This was achieved through a six minute high intensity bout of cycling. While the mechanisms behind this difference are not yet understood, there are theories that the high intensity exercise may cause a shift in the fuel source within the brain which promotes an increase in BDNF. Another possible mechanism is an increase in platelets that is commonly associated with regular exercise. Platelets store large amounts of BDNF and hence any increase in platelets would also produce an increase in BDNF.
Other recent research into exercise and aging has explored the relationship between the mitochondria and exercise. The mitochondria is sometimes referred to as the “powerhouse” of the cell due to its role in energy production and supply. Disruptions in mitochondria function have been linked to the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. In addition, in the event that an individual has mitochondria dysfunction and contracts Covid-19 they are more likely to have a severe health outcome.
A team of researchers from Columbia recently identified that mitochondria dysfunction causes the body to shift into what they termed hyper-metabolism (which can increase energy expenditure by twice as much!). They believe that this change is responsible for the deterioration in cell function and that it accelerates aging. The main mechanism behind this change is a degradation in the cell’s telomeres affecting the length of the telomere. This is known to be associated with an increased incidence of disease and has been linked to morbidity and mortality.
Fortunately a group of researchers investigated changes in mitochondria function in animal models and their association with level of physical fitness. The animals with a longstanding history of exercise were able to mitigate the negative influences of aging on mitochondria function. This is consistent with other research that supports the connection between exercise and improved efficiency. Regular exercise has been shown not only to promote the generation of mitochondria but can also modify mitochondria function which is all the more reason to include it in your lifestyle!