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High-Intensity Aerobic Exercise Acutely Increases Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: August 2019 - Volume 51 - Issue 8 - p 1698–1709
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001969

Aerobic exercise (AEx) exerts antidepressant effects, although the neurobiological mechanisms underlying such effects are not well understood. Reduced brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and elevated cortisol have been implicated in the pathophysiology of depression and appear to normalize with antidepressant treatment. Thus, BDNF and cortisol may serve as biological targets for developing AEx as an antidepressant treatment.

Purpose This study examined the effects of AEx, of different intensities, on serum BDNF and cortisol in individuals with and without depression.

Methods Thirteen participants with depression (10 females; age = 27.2 ± 6.9 yr; Montgomery–Äsberg Depression Rating Scale = 21.7 ± 4.7) and 13 control participants (10 females; age 27.2 ± 7.2 yr; Montgomery–Äsberg Depression Rating Scale = 0.5 ± 0.9) participated. Experimental visits consisted of 15 min of low-intensity cycling (LO) at 35% heart rate reserve, high-intensity cycling (HI) at 70% heart rate reserve, or sitting (CON). During each visit, blood samples were obtained at baseline, immediately postexercise (IP), and then every 15 min postexercise for 1 h (15P, 30P, 45P, and 60P). Group, condition, and time differences in BDNF and cortisol were assessed.

Results There were no group differences in cortisol and BDNF. Secondary analysis revealed that BDNF increased in an intensity-dependent nature at IP, and cortisol was significantly elevated at 15P after HI. Changes in BDNF and cortisol showed significant linear relationships with changes in HR.

Conclusion HI AEx can elicit acute, transient increases in BDNF and cortisol in young, healthy, and physically active, nondepressed and mild to moderately depressed individuals. This work suggests that AEx has potential to significantly affect the central nervous system function, and the magnitude of such effect may be directly driven by exercise intensity.

1Department of Health Sciences and Research, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC;

2Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Charleston, SC; and

3Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC

Address for correspondence: Ryan E. Ross, Ph.D., 77 President St., MSC 700, Charleston, SC 29425; E-mail:

Submitted for publication October 2018.

Accepted for publication February 2019.

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Online date: March 4, 2019

© 2019 American College of Sports Medicine