We all know that exercise is good for us. It improves strength and suppleness, helps us maintain a healthy weight, and improves cardiovascular fitness. Exercising the large muscles in our legs can be especially beneficial, because they help us move and balance, and because big muscles burn more calories.
But science is discovering that the benefits of exercise go way beyond the obvious, and affect us in far more ways than was once thought. Exercise is great for your skin, for example. It can work wonders for your mood. And in the latest breakthrough, researchers have discovered that exercising leg muscles specifically is also a healthy workout for your brain and nervous system.
Healthy legs, healthy mind
The latest study was conducted on mice, but it was pretty conclusive nonetheless. What it found was that, when movement is restricted - and specifically movement in the legs - the chemistry of the brain is affected in negative ways.
The researchers conclude that using the large leg muscles sends signals to the brain telling it to produce neural cells, which are vital for a healthy brain and nervous system. If we don’t exercise these muscles, it can be difficult to produce enough of these cells to keep the brain and nervous system functioning normally.
The study has lots of potential implications for people with neurological diseases - such as motor neuron disease and multiple sclerosis - and even for astronauts going into space and facing restricted movement for long periods of time.
But it has implications for all of us, too. As one of the researchers, Dr. Raffaella Adami from the Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy, said: “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. Neurological health is not a one-way street with the brain telling the muscles ‘lift,’ ‘walk,’ and so on.”
Exercise stress away
Further research is needed, but it might be that, for all of us, exercising our leg muscles can have a positive impact on our brain chemistry, which in turn can make us better able to deal with stress and adapt to new changes and challenges in our lives.
Of course, exercising your legs brings lots of other benefits as well, because your thigh muscles are the strongest and leanest in your body. Leg workouts improve cardiovascular health and can help you lose weight. Strong, toned legs look pretty good, too.
With that in mind, here are three great exercises for legs:
Pushing your body forward at more than walking pace takes some effort, which is why running is so good for your cardiovascular system. Needless to say, it helps to strengthen and tone legs too.
Certain exercises specifically work your leg muscles. Perhaps the best known and most effective is the squat, which can be done at home, in the park, or anywhere else. Stand with your legs shoulder width apart, or a bit wider if that’s more comfortable. Push your hands out in front of you for balance, and then lower yourself back and down as if bending to sit in an imaginary chair. Keep going until your thighs are parallel to the floor, or as near to that point as you can get. Then push up from the heels to return to a standing position. Do three sets of ten to start with.
Lying curls can also be done at home and work the hamstrings at the back of your thighs. Lie face down, holding yourself up on your forearms. Rest your left foot on your right heel and use your right leg to lift the left one towards your bottom, then lower. Your own legs act as weights. Do this twenty times then swap legs, doing three sets of 20 with each leg.
There is plenty of equipment at the gym to help with leg workouts, too, but exactly what you do is up to you. The important thing is to do something. Suffice to say that, whether it’s running, cycling, squats or curls, the latest findings suggest that you’re boosting your brain at the same time as your body.