The connection between physical activity and brain health is getting stronger. New research shows that using your legs in weight-bearing exercise is critical for brain health. Researchers found that moving the large muscles in the legs, through activities such as walking, climbing stairs, and running, triggers the production of stem cells in the brain—helping that critical organ to renew itself. “We are meant to be active: to walk, run, crouch to sit, and use our leg muscles to lift things,” said study author Raffaella Adami.

Groundbreaking research shows that neurological health depends as much on signals sent by the body’s large, leg muscles to the brain as it does on directives from the brain to the muscles. Published today in Frontiers in Neuroscience, the study fundamentally alters brain and nervous system medicine — giving doctors new clues as to why patients with motor neuron disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal muscular atrophy, and other neurological diseases often rapidly decline when their movement becomes limited.

For the study, researchers immobilized the hind legs of a group of mice for 28 days, then examined a specific area of their brains known as the subventricular zone. They found the neural stem cell activity of the mice had plummeted by 70 percent. Declines in oxygen levels associated with reduced physical activity also altered the rodents’ metabolism. These findings may explain why the health of people who are bedridden often deteriorates rapidly.

The study can be used to promote the importance of exercising. In the past, exercising has been used as a way to help with cardiovascular and muscle fitness. With this new study, leg exercises can also be touted as a way to improve brain functionality and the central nervous system.

Daily activity also helps boost balance, motor function, brain function, and cognition. According to a growing body of research, movement increases blood and oxygen flow, which positively affects cognitive development, physical health, and mental well-being.

Our body is, in effect, ruled by our brain, right? Signals from the brain direct the actions of our skeletal muscles, enabling us to pick up a pencil, kick a soccer ball, and do whatever we want to do. But this study suggests that it’s really a two-way street. Signals emanating from the larger muscles in our body are also crucial for the health and regenerative capacity of the brain and nervous system.

Studies like this serve as a vital reminder of the impact of physical activity not merely on our bodies, and on how we look, but also on our minds. What could be more important than that?

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