Have you ever noticed when watching a documentary, show, or film about a billionaire Silicon Valley tech founder, hedge fund CEO, or wildly successful entrepreneur that they almost always have some sort of obsessive workout routine or health regimen? So, why are titans of industry, high performing executives, and top earners at companies around the world slightly exercise obsessed?
There are a few reasons for this, but the science is the most interesting.
Let’s be honest, one reason may be pure vanity. There are a lot of high performing business men and women who like to look good and take a lot of pride in their appearance. Another reason is the all-important work/life balance. Nobody likes to be a slave to their computer or conference room, so it is a personal mission to take the time to balance a healthy lifestyle and exercise with work. Physical and mental health are also significant reasons for people to incorporate exercise or meditation into daily routines.
Here are some examples of the daily routines for some of the world’s most successful CEOs and entrepreneurs:
- Richard Branson plays a daily game of tennis every single morning, in addition to being a notorious adrenaline junkie.
- LearnVest CEO Alexa Von Tobel prioritizes a workout every morning and takes her co-workers with her (which we love).
- Mark Cuban finds the time to get in an hour of cardio every day.
- Apple CEO Tim Cook has been known to wake before 4:00am every day to exercise off-campus so he can be free from distraction.
- Jack Dorsey, interim CEO at Twitter, meditates twice a day, walks to work, jogs, and takes regular ice baths.
There are countless personal reasons for wanting to run two miles every day before morning meetings, take a lunch-time yoga class, or catch that 5:00 pm spin class. But what I find the most interesting, is if successful CEOs and entrepreneurs are hitting the gym or the yoga studio because they know the super powers it can yield.
So, what is the link?
There is a direct connection between regular exercise and high brain performance that can be tied to the production of a protein called BDNF, short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Put simply, BDNF is like Miracle-Gro for you brain. It is essential for supporting our overall brain health and the survival of neurons and brain cells that we rely on for learning, long-term memory storage, and higher brain functions.
There is also a negative correlation between low levels of BDNF and brain health, meaning that decreases in BDNF can contribute to the brain fog that we all know too well thanks to the pandemic and the increases in daily stress. In more sever cases, people with low BDNF levels may be more likely to have drinking problems or suffer from anxiety and depression. On the far end of the spectrum, severely low BDNF levels have been shown in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
Without having to take a deep dive into a brain science course to understand BDNF (and I will admit, I took one of these courses because I was suffering from severe post-pandemic brain fog), there are a few simple takeaways:
- BDNF is essential for brain health
- Increasing your levels of BDNF can help support higher brain function and combat brain fog
- Increasing your levels of BDNF can help combat anxiety and depression
- Increasing your levels of BDNF chan help combat degenerative brain disease
We know what BDNF is and why it’s important. But how do we increase it?
Luckily, there are really simple things you can do to increase BDNF and reap all of its amazing benefits. Here are five things you can do right away:
- Exercise. Getting out of the sedentary category is the easiest way to improve BDNF levels. Anything below 5,000 steps a day is considered sedentary and anything between 7,500 and 10,000 steps is considered an active lifestyle – this is the category you want to aim for!
For the best results, high intensity workouts that push your body to exhaustion and also require you to use your brain when at exhaustion is when your brain benefits the most. Think boxing – you push your body to its limit but are still required to focus on your footwork and hand placement. This is ideal!
- Meditation. A 2017 study by the University of Southern California (USC) tested 38 people’s BDNF levels before and after a three month meditation retreat. At the end of their practice, the mindful meditators had boosted their BDNF levels by an astounding 280% . There is more research being done on the impact of mindfulness and mediation on BDNF, but the positive association between increased BDNF levels and regular meditation is one widely adopted to be a fantastic way to keep our brains healthy.
- Coffee. Yes, there is a constant debate: is coffee good for you? Is it bad for you? Well, for this case, we’re going to go with good to actually really great. Coffee is rich in polyphenols, which help manage blood pressure levels and promote good circulation – as well as help increase levels of BDNF. Coffee berries or coffee cherry, are even more effective. A 2013 clinical trial found that 100 milligrams of coffee berry extract increased BDNF levels by 143%!
- Get some sun! Studies have confirmed that BDNF levels increase with the warmer, sunnier seasons. Getting out into the sun is a great way to increase your BDNF levels. If you couple that with meditation, just sitting and being mindful, or exercising, you’re ticking multiple BDNF-boosting boxes. 
- Sleep. Quality sleep is important for just about everything. This is the time our body is able to rest and restore. When we sleep, our body also naturally releases more BDNF, which means that more quality sleep means more BDNF production.
Whether your goal is to be a high performing CEO or simply to improve your brain function to get through your busy day, one of the best things you can do is establish a regular routine that incorporates quality sleep, mindfulness, exercise, getting outside, and a diet rich in polyphenols and antioxidants. I happen to be a coffee junkie, so finding out that coffee helps boost BDNF levels was great news to me (green tea will also help get the job done).
Hopefully your brain fog starts to clear!
 Molendijk, M. L., Haffmans, J. P. M., Bus, B. A. A., Spinhoven, P., Brenda, W. J. H. P., Prickaerts, J., . . . Elzinga, B. M. (2012). Serum BDNF concentrations show strong seasonal variation and correlations with the amount of ambient sunlight. PLoS One, 7(11). doi:http://dx.doi.org.libproxy2.usc.edu/10.1371/journal.pone.0048046
 Chui, D. H., Marcellino, M., Marotta, F., Sweed, H., Solimene, U., Vignali, A. I., … Zerbinati, N. (2014). A double-blind, rct testing beneficial modulation of BDNF in middle-aged, life style-stressed subjects: a clue to brain protection? Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 8(11), 1-6. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2014/10301.5141