Programming a BDNF-Boosting Workout for Improved Brain Function

BDNF WOrkout


We recently discussed how Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a protein found in the brain that plays a role in the survival of neurons and is associated with all sorts of benefits such as reduced anxiety and depression, improves memory and learning, and reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. It has been detected in experiments to be present after one short bout of exercise, but also, different types of exercise seems to be associated with increased BDNF-boosting. 

Programming BDNF-Boosting Workouts

Personal trainers devise exercise programs that are unique to their clients’ fitness levels and needs. In the same way, trainers can create exercise programs that can positively impact BDNF and overall brain function. Trainers can do this without even knowing that brain function is being impacted; it’s just one of the many benefits of certain types of exercise.

If you want to be more intentional about encouraging neuroplasticity with your clients, the following are some focused approaches to formulating a BDNF-boosting workout.


Sprinting initially exerts more effort than long-distance running, but the exercise is also over much sooner. This exercise can increase your client’s heart rate in a short amount of time, getting them to race to a resting period, which can help increase BDNF even further.

Healthline suggests a rapid fluctuation between sprinting and resting: sprinting for 30 seconds, then recovering for 1 to 2 minutes. With each sprint, your client should increase their speed and energy.

Timed Obstacle Courses

Speed is the name of the game here, but with an obstacle course, you’re encouraging your client to think outside the track lane. Anything with stations can be an obstacle course, so you can make this exercise as creative as possible: Have your client jump rope, then bob and weave through cones, then have them do burpees — you get the idea! With this routine, you’re getting your client’s heart rate up, which can boost BDNF, but you’re also engaging them mentally, which can also help improve cognitive function.

Interval Training on Cardio Machines

Not only is interval training great for weight loss, but it can also help boost BDNF. Have your client use a cardio machine — treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, stair master — on an interval setting so that the speed, and perhaps intensity or incline, fluctuates. This will make the recovery periods when they’re exercising with a little more leeway feel like a short break, which can help result in BDNF-boosting effects.

Balancing Exercises

You don’t have to be a yoga instructor to instruct your client to perform balancing exercises. There are a wide variety of balancing exercises your client can try: standing on one foot, doing so with eyes closed, hopping on one foot, walking in a straight line or on a balance beam, standing on a balancing board or BOSU, or for an extra challenge, kneeling and even standing stability ball.

Twists/Cross Exercises

Twists can be great for growing core strength, but another benefit is that both sides of your client’s body will be engaged. During cross-motions, your client is activating both sides of their brain, which can boost the BDNF protein and improve overall brain function. Some twists or cross exercises you can instruct your client to do are bird dogs, Russian twists (with or without a medicine ball), or bicycle crunches.

Cool Down, Deep Stretching

Since the recovery period after exercise is when the most BDNF is generated, it’s important to include a cool down in your client’s workout. This way, their heart rate can start to slow and they can reap that benefit even sooner. During the cooldown, you can instruct your client to do some deep stretches for at least five or more breaths (at least 30 seconds), like seated forward fold, butterfly stretches, and figure-4 leg hamstring stretches.

Days Off

The most important part of a workout routine for BDNF production is a day off. Rest and recovery days are when muscles start to heal and grow. Likewise, BDNF-boosting is taking place and doing its good work. Now, don’t let your clients get too excited. They have to have a steady workout routine before they can reap the benefits of their rest days, especially when it comes to brain health.




NFPT Publisher Michele Rogers, MA, NFPT-CPT, manages and coordinates educational blogs and social media content for NFPT. She’s been a personal trainer for 20 years with a lifetime passion for all things health and fitness. Her mission is to raise kinesthetic awareness and nurture a mind-body connection. After battling chronic lower back pain and becoming a parent, Michele aims her training approach to emphasize corrective exercise and pain resolution. She holds a master’s degree in applied health psychology from Northern Arizona University. Follow Michele on Instagram.