If there’s one phrase that sends even the most dedicated bodybuilders away screaming, it’s “leg day.”
Whether you’re doing crunches or squats or the wall sitting exercise, leg workouts are usually associated with pain. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t post a funny meme on Facebook about the torture associated with leg day.
Yeah, they hurt. I get it.
But new research is coming out showing that leg strength is tied to more than just stability and the ability to jump over linebackers. It might actually strengthen your brain.
Will exercise make you smarter? Not necessarily, but it can be a powerful way to prevent (or at least slow down) brain deterioration and dementia.
The Two-Way Link From Your Legs To Your Brain
I’ve heard it said several times now, and I’m convinced that it’s true: sitting is the new smoking. Our ancestors did not spend their days sitting behind a desk and their evenings on the couch watching Netflix. They were on their feet, hunting and growing crops, exploring the world, building the massive stone structures that still stand in many parts of the world today. As much as smoking destroys people’s lungs and hearts, a sedentary life ruins their muscle tone, circulation, and digestion.
Someday, I think we are going to look back at the 20th century and see a parallel line between the decline of our civilization and the decline of fitness. As our lives get more comfortable and more sedentary, we are becoming lazier about many areas of our lives. Just look at our entertainment — music in the 1960s and 1970s was more complex than the drivel that plays on the radio today. And there hasn’t been an original movie idea in 30 years or more. Am I right?
I’m showing my age again, aren’t I?
The Research Behind It
But there’s some truth to it, and now I have clinical research to prove it. One of my favorite medical research sites to study is Dr. Joseph Mercola’s site, mercola.com. He and I have very similar philosophies of patient care, and I have enormous respect for his research. He recently shared the findings of a published clinical study that demonstrated a “two-way” link between the brain and the leg muscles.
Conventional thinking for centuries has been that the brain communicates movement instructions to the muscles and the muscles send back sensory signals, like pain and pleasure. The research is changing that thinking:
“Both astronauts and patients affected by chronic movement-limiting pathologies face impairment in muscle and/or brain performance. Increased patient survival expectations and the expected longer stays in space by astronauts may result in prolonged motor deprivation and consequent pathological effects.
Severe movement limitation can influence not only the motor and metabolic systems but also the nervous system, altering neurogenesis and the interaction between motoneurons and muscle cells. Little information is yet available about the effect of prolonged muscle disuse on neural stem cells characteristics. Our in vitro study aims to fill this gap by focusing on the biological and molecular properties of neural stem cells (NSCs) …
The overall results support the existence of a link between reduction of exercise and muscle disuse and metabolism in the brain and thus represent valuable new information that could clarify how circumstances such as the absence of load and the lack of movement that occurs in people with some neurological diseases, may affect the properties of NSCs and contribute to the negative manifestations of these conditions.”
In case you didn’t feel like reading all that (and I’ll be the first to tell you, clinical papers can be pretty dry), I’ll summarize: if you don’t exercise your legs, your brain will suffer.
Disease In One Leads To Disease In The Other
One of our core principles here at Wellness Wednesday is that all the different facets of your health are interwoven; what affects one part of your life affects all the others, including physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, and so on. If you’re new to the Fundamental family, we have embraced a four-faceted view of wellness: Move Right, Eat Right, Think Right, Live Right. One is not more important than the others, and all of the systems of your life are tied – directly or indirectly – to all four.
If you’ve ever had a family member succumb to multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or atrophy, you may have noticed that their cognitive function was also affected. I’m seeing more and more doctors (medical and chiropractic) recommending regular moderate-exertion exercise for patients in the early stages of dementia. Even if they weren’t sure why it was working, the evidence supported it. Now we know more about why it works.
Part of the issue has to do with blood flow. If your heart rate is slow or your circulation is plugged up with plaque or arteriosclerosis, your brain doesn’t receive all the oxygen that it needs to sustain its health and damaging proteins are more likely to settle in the brain. Improved blood flow helps to sweep out the trash in your cells, promoting healthy cells and better cell reproduction. Exercise also stimulates the production of proteins that build muscle tissue, but also protects and rejuvenates brain cells.
Exercise Feels Good…Eventually
My patients who start an exercise program often tell me that, once they get used to not sitting around, they find that they enjoy a positive sensation that many athletes call a “runners high.” It’s the flood of feel-good endorphins that flood the bloodstream during a workout. It’s the primary reason I urge executives, pastors, and other high-stress professionals to work out at least every other day. There is a corresponding flood of cell-regenerating proteins that floods the brain and other muscle groups at the same time.
In case I haven’t said it enough recently, working out is very good for you…whether you like it or not.
The Research Is Clear And Consistent
Dr. Mercola shared a treasure trove of insights from the research, including:
- In a 2011 study, seniors who walked 30 to 45 minutes, three days per week for one year, increased the volume of their hippocampus by 2 percent. Typically, your hippocampus tends to shrink with age. The results prompted the authors to claim exercise is “one of the most promising nonpharmaceutical treatments to improve brain health.”
- Research also shows exercise helps preserve gray and white matter in your frontal, temporal and parietal cortexes, which also helps prevent cognitive deterioration.
- A 2016 study in the journal Gerontology found that working your leg muscles helps maintain cognitive function as you get older. According to the authors, simply walking more could help maintain brain function well into old age. The study followed 324 female twins, aged 43 to 73, for a decade. Cognitive function such as learning and memory was tested at the outset and at the conclusion of the study.
- Interestingly, leg strength was found to be a better predictor for brain health than any other lifestyle factor they reviewed. Consistently, the twin with the greatest leg strength maintained higher cognitive functioning over time compared to her weaker twin. The stronger of the pair also experienced fewer age-related brain changes over time.
It’s hard to argue with the data.
More Than Brain Health
He also goes on to share several other key benefits to exercise, including:
- Balancing your insulin and preventing insulin resistance.
- Reducing cytokines associated with chronic inflammation, which is the root of dozens of diseases, from asthma to rheumatoid arthritis.
- Managing stress
- Increasing happy neurotransmitters.
So Now What Do We Do?
At the risk of offending some of my readers, it’s time to move your butt off the couch. I know that exercise can be terrifying to people because – just like replacing any other habit – replacing the sedentary lifestyle habit with a habit of exercise feels uncomfortable until it becomes pleasant.
It doesn’t have to be awful. We created the Move Right Monday exercise video series to give you a set of simple movements you can do anywhere, anytime, without having to change clothes or go to the gym (some of them actually involve sitting!). But while it might sound like these are meaningless stretches, they are exactly the opposite. These movements are a powerful way to cultivate and tone your core muscles, building stability, flexibility, and motor control.
You might not even break a sweat when you do these, but if you will be consistent and follow the directions precisely, you will begin to see some surprisingly good results within the first few weeks.
Stepping Up To High Intensity
If you’re ready for something more aggressive, I want to encourage you to try High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). The key to this type of exercise is short bursts of all-out effort, separated by 20- or 30-second breaks. You might be tempted to think that short bursts of movement won’t have any effect at all, but just do it a couple of times and you will see why so many doctors are telling their patients to quit the gym and just do interval training at home. There are few exercises you can do that will have a greater positive effect on your heart and lungs.
And, as it turns out…your brain, too.
My Prescription For Brain Health
If you are experiencing the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, or you know someone who has, I encourage you to read Dr. Mercola’s whole article, and then I want you to start doing the first Move Right Monday exercise two or three times at the top of every hour, starting today.
Now, I didn’t say stop following your primary care doctor’s instructions (or your other doctors’). You follow their treatment recommendations. Over the next few days, start watching the other videos in the series (they are all on YouTube) and add a new exercise every few days. Over time, you will see a marked improvement in your stamina, your balance, your flexibility, your breathing, your moods, your joint pain, and your overall sense of wellness. You might even find yourself remembering things faster or retaining your short-term memory more effectively.
I Want To Hear About Your Success
Keep me posted as you see improvement. We have a lot of people joining in the conversation on Facebook, and your success might just be the ticket to get someone off the fence and taking action in their own lives. Some people just need to see someone else getting results before they take action themselves. The more we use that powerful platform to encourage each other, the more success stories we will see.
I am so grateful for every single person who joins us here each week (or as often as you can). Together, we are bringing a message of wellness to a larger audience. Every time you like and share my blog, someone new learns a key to unlocking their own wellness. I can’t do it without you, but together we can make a real, lasting difference for many people.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas