I heard something at a recent brain injury support group that caught my ear. Brain injury support groups are lifesavers for many of us. Within this sacred space, shared by survivors and those who love them, healing happens. Ideas and compensatory strategies are shared, and new resources for living are discovered.
At one of my regular support group meetings a few months ago, a guest presenter, a doctor intimately familiar with brain injury, shared something that immediately caught my attention: “Regular exercise bathes the brain in a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF,” she said. “This specific protein has been shown to speed brain injury recovery.”
That was all it took to fuel my hunger to learn more about BDNF.
A few short years ago, I was in the toughest place of my life. During my first post-injury year, life was more difficult than anything I had ever imagined. My brain injury had robbed our family of any meaningful stability and stolen my sense of self. It put unbearable stress on my wife and had essentially ruined life as we knew it.
Yet, fast forward to today, and life is relatively good, not without challenges, but good. I am working full-time again; running two companies – one that develops websites and marketing assets for small and medium-sized businesses—and the other company produces books for aspiring authors.
Professionally, I am on top of my game again. My wife Sarah and I have emerged stronger than ever. Add a couple of new grandchildren to the mix, and life is pretty darn good these days.
So how did I get from there to here? From a suicidal-inclined brain damaged forty-nine-year-old man back to someone who has re-engaged with life?
Within a couple of months after my accident, I got on a bike again. For those unfamiliar with my story, I was struck while cycling back in late 2010, so getting back on a bike was a pretty big deal for me.
For well over a year after I resumed cycling, I never left our quiet neighborhood. PTSD held a tight grip on me. Just seeing a street with a solid yellow line brought about an abrupt U-turn and an overwhelming sense of panic.
But I was exercising again with passion and consistency. Most every day, I would hit the streets pushing out twenty miles or more. I understand that this is not typical for most.
Frankly, it was a lifesaver in many ways. Early on, my brain would crash early in the afternoon. But unlike some, I did not have an accompanying physical crash. When my brain crash hit at 2:00 PM, I hopped on my bike to ride. And without knowing it, until this year, I was helping my body create new brain cells by increasing my BDNF.
Coming home after that support group meeting, my research began in earnest. I had long thought my daily cardio was the biggest single contributor to my recovery. Over the years since my brain injury, I had spoken with other exercise enthusiasts who, like me, exceeded expected outcomes. Most of them said that daily cardio was a game-changer. This only fueled my passion to continue cycling.
My research validated what I had seen and experienced in my own life.
Certain types of physical exercise have been shown to markedly (threefold) increase BDNF synthesis in the human brain, a phenomenon which is partly responsible for exercise-induced neurogenesis and improvements in cognitive function.
A three hundred percent increase in a protein known to help the brain recover is something to look at quite seriously. Neurogenesis is a simple concept. It is the growth of new brain cells.
Think about this for a moment: engaging in regular physical activity produces a chemical that is proven to stimulate new brain cell growth. This vital chemical keeps brain circuits running smoothly and is increased threefold by regular exercise. I call this nothing short of remarkable.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a daily cyclist to get this benefit. Shared by the doctor who presented at our group, thirty minutes of exercise, three times a week, will release BDNF’s and speed the neuro healing process.
Over the years, as I continued to cycle, I was stacking the deck in my favor, unknowingly promoting faster healing of my damaged brain.
Not every injury is the same, and every recovery is different. Not all of us have the capacity to exercise with regularity. In that respect, I am one of the fortunate ones.
When I look at my life today, there are times I marvel that I am still here. I don’t look back as often as I used to. There is a lot of darkness and pain in the rear-view mirror. Darkness that no longer defines life as I know it.
I also have come to the point in my own recovery where I accept what happened to me and who I am today. I will always be a brain injury survivor. There will be good days and bad days. There will be times when my speech falls away, times I can’t find the right word, times of overwhelming exhaustion, and times that I am just overwhelmed by life. It goes with the territory.
Though I have healed and come further than most of my doctors ever expected, I still, and will always have challenges because of my injury. I am okay with that.
Every time I hop on my bike, however, I look at things a bit differently. Now, I think of riding as my payment for the insurance premium on my recovery. I exchange a bit of my time most every day for an activity that will help me live well today and continually heal.
Sources and additional information
- What is BDNF and What Does it Do?
- Szuhany KL, Bugatti M, Otto MW (January 2015). "A meta-analytic review of the effects of exercise on brain-derived neurotrophic factor". Journal of Psychiatric Research. 60: 56–64.
- Denham J, Marques FZ, O'Brien BJ, Charchar FJ (February 2014). "Exercise: putting action into our epigenome". Sports Medicine. 44 (2): 189–209.
- Phillips C, Baktir MA, Srivatsan M, Salehi A (2014). "Neuroprotective effects of physical activity on the brain: a closer look at trophic factor signaling". Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience. 8: 170.
- Exercise induces BDNF, improves learning and reduces β-amyloid