When mice weren’t able to move their back legs for four weeks, their brains produced significantly fewer neural stem cells and their neurons never fully matured. In other words, skimping on lower-body exercise hurt their brains and nervous systems, according to the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
Earlier research supports the idea that strengthening your legs staves off stress and improves cognition, says study author Daniele Bottai, Ph.D., assistant professor of health science at the University of Milan in Italy. It can even reduce your risk of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
But beyond that, he says there are more questions than answers about the connection. It’s unclear whether the healthy neural signals are activated by the leg muscles or even if the effects are specific to the lower body. This study looked only at the legs, but four weeks of no arm movement might hurt the brain, too.
Even if the details are murky, Bottai notes you can only benefit from moving more. Romanian deadlifts, barbell squats, and leg presses work the biggest (and the most) lower-body muscles, adds Jakob Roze, a Tier 2 trainer at Equinox 50th Street in New York City. Add them to your routine once or twice per week.