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Leg Health Connects to Your Brain

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Jacob Ammentorp Lund/Thinkstock

Want to keep your noggin happy? Pump those legs!

Boosting neurological health doesn’t depend solely on doing crossword puzzles and eating walnuts. A new study suggests that in order for neural cells to be produced in the brain, using the legs—especially in weight-bearing exercise—is vitally important.

The Italian study, which was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, shows that the brain’s health relies on signals sent by the large muscles in the legs. The research was conducted with mice. The mice were feeding and grooming normally and not exhibiting signs of stress but were restricted from using their hind legs for 28 days. Researchers found that compared to a control group of mice who had roamed normally, the mice who hadn’t used their legs had changes in their brains in an area called the sub-ventricular zone, responsible for maintaining nerve cell health in many mammals and where new neurons are produced. The lack of physical activity had dropped the number of neural stem cells by 70 percent. This shows that using the legs sends a signal to the brain; hence, cutting back on movement limits the body’s ability to produce new nerve cells.

“Neurological health is not a one-way street with the brain telling the muscles ‘lift,’ ‘walk,’ and so on,” writes the study’s author, Dr. Raffaella Adami, of the Università degli Studi in Milan. “It is no accident that we are meant to be active: to walk, run, crouch to sit, and use our leg muscles to lift things.”

This study helps explain the biochemistry behind changes that occur when people are bed-ridden, have spinal cord injuries, or have diseases such as multiple sclerosis. It even has implications for astronauts on extended trips into zero gravity. And it is an important reminder on the importance of cardio-vascular health and avoiding sedentary lifestyles.

As study co-author Dr. Daniele Bottai, wrote, “One could say our health is grounded on Earth in ways we are just beginning to understand.”


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Savannah. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!.


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