In our quest for a healthy body and mind, we often focus on activities that target specific areas, such as cardio exercises for a strong heart or puzzles to sharpen our cognitive skills. However, one aspect that is frequently overlooked is the vital link between leg strength and brain health. As we age, it becomes increasingly important to engage in leg strengthening exercises, as they have been proven to not only enhance physical fitness but also significantly improve brain health. In this article, we will explore the fascinating connection between leg exercises and cognitive function, highlighting the effectiveness of leg strengthening exercises as we age.
The Science Behind the Connection:
The surprising connection between leg strength and brain health can be traced back to various scientific studies. Research has revealed that the muscles in our legs are among the largest and most powerful in our bodies. When we engage in leg strengthening exercises, such as squats, lunges, or leg presses, we activate these large muscle groups, leading to increased blood flow and the release of essential growth factors and hormones. This enhanced blood flow and hormonal release stimulate the production of new neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory and learning.
Cognitive Benefits of Leg Strengthening Exercises:
a) Improved Memory: Regular leg exercises have been shown to have a profound impact on memory function. One study found that older adults who engaged in leg strength training showed significant improvements in both verbal and spatial memory compared to those who did not exercise their legs. The increased blood flow and neurogenesis in the brain, triggered by leg exercises, play a crucial role in enhancing memory function.
b) Enhanced Cognitive Flexibility: Cognitive flexibility refers to the brain's ability to adapt and switch between different tasks or mental processes. Leg strengthening exercises have been found to improve cognitive flexibility, allowing individuals to think more creatively, problem-solve efficiently, and adapt to new situations with ease. This can greatly benefit older adults in their daily lives, as they encounter various cognitive challenges.
c) Leg Strength Predicts Healthy Brain Function: Health experts have long known that maintaining cognitive ability late into life is often related to consistent mental exercise. However, what has come to light only in recent years is that physical activity has a very strong influence on mental performance. Furthermore, emerging research suggests that the amount of grey matter in the brain later in life is directly related to the strength of your legs in your youth.
A study published in the journal Gerontology examined 324 female twins over a ten-year period. The study authors concluded that those participants with more leg strength at the start of the study exhibited more cognitive functionality than their twins.
Another study involving mice found a causal relationship between weight-bearing exercise and production of neural stem cells. Mice that had their hind legs immobilized for 28 days had a marked reduction in the number of neural stem cells in their brains. These stem cells are critical in proper neural function and prevent the onset of serious neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis.
d) Stronger legs means you live Longer: One longitudinal study that evaluated more than 1,200 adults aged 55 and older found that leg strength was the most reliable predictor of physical functionality later in life. Other studies have linked lower thigh muscle mass to the likelihood of death from a cardiovascular disease.
What is truly interesting about these studies is that they appear to agree that overall muscle mass is not a good predictor of future health and longevity, but leg muscle mass is. There seems to be a strong correlation between the strength of your legs and the likelihood that you will remain active throughout your life, thus lowering the risk of developing a serious chronic health condition.
Stay Active and Live Longer and Happier
The obvious conclusion from these studies is that you should maintain a physically active lifestyle for as long as possible. One of the keys to this is engaging in activities that promote leg strength like jogging, swimming, or cycling. High-impact workouts aren’t always necessary or even recommended, depending on your current state of health, so making it a habit to get up regularly and go for a walk can have real health benefits.
Here are some of the simplest but effective leg-strengthening exercises you can incorporate into your exercise program:
Squats—start by standing with your feet shoulder-length apart. Bend your knees until you reach a crouching position, then slowly return to your starting position. You should begin performing this exercise using just your body weight as resistance, but once you feel comfortable, you may want to start holding dumbbells to give your legs more of a workout. Follow us on Instagram or Facebook to see how you can easily make your squats harder.
Lunges—begin in a standing position with your feet slightly apart. Step out with one foot and lower your back knee until it is almost touching the floor. At this point your front leg should be at almost a 90-degree angle with your thigh parallel to the floor. Then return to your initial standing position. Once again, you may add weights as your strength improves. Make this harder by trying jumping lunges.
Standing One Leg Balance: Put all of your weight on one leg and lift the other leg out to the side. If you need to, you can use a countertop or chair for balance. As your balance increases try and do this exercise without any hand support. The raised leg makes small circles. Try 5-10 circles in one direction and then change directions.
Single Leg Deadlifts – begin in a standing position without any weights. Stand with most of your weight one leg, and the second leg slightly behind the first for balance, then bend at the hips leaning forward with a flat back. Come back up to a tall stand position. Repeat 10-15x. To make this harder add dumbbells or a barbell.