Leg day may have been a consistent meme thread over the last few years, but as it turns out, there really is plenty of reason not to skip out on it. One of the biggest reasons? Research shows that the muscles that make up the lower half of the body – so, your legs – can have a major impact on your brain health. (So, leg day = basically brain day.)
One study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the effects of mice who were restricted from using their hind legs for 28 days. At the end of the testing period, the mice with hindered movement showed that their number of neural stem cells had dropped by a whopping 70 percent when compared to the mice who were allowed to use all four limbs. With fewer neural stem cells, it becomes super difficult for your body to do pretty critical things like produce nerve cells that are critical for the healthy brain function and nervous system.
This is just one of several studies that shows just how interconnected the systems of our bodies really are. “It’s no accident that we’re meant to be active,” Raffaella Adami, a co-author of the study, told Science Daily. Adami asserts that the bodies of patients who weren’t able to use their lower halves were altered on a cellular level. “Neurological health isn’t a one-way street with the brain telling the muscles ‘lift,’ ‘walk,’ and so on.”
Exercise restriction can have other nasty side effects as well. Less physical activity means less oxygen in the body, which can change your metabolism. On a microscopic level, lack of exercise negatively affects CDK5Rap1 (no, not a typo), the gene that is responsible for mitochondrial health. As we all learned in biology, the powerhouse of the cell is pretty important for all our bodily functions.
Now that you know that there’s a lot more riding on leg day than just your legs, here are a couple exercises to your lower body and your brain in tip-top shape.
This one you can do pretty much anywhere, so it’s great for a quick elevator ride or even when you’re scrubbing up in the shower. Just stand with your feet hip-width apart with your weight planted in your heels. Move the weight forward onto the balls of your feet, and raise your heels in the air. Lower down as close to the ground as you can without touching, then head back up again. Pretty simple, but defined calves don’t have to be complicated.
Stand with your hands to the side and feet shoulder-width apart with toes facing forward. Bend your knees into a squatting position, keeping your back straight as you lean forward and clasping your hands over your chest. Then quickly, push up and jump as high as you can, using your arms to help thrust upward. Land softly on the front of your feet and return directly to a squatting position.
Start in a forward lunge, with one foot bent in front of the other and the forward knee at a 90-degree
angle. Quickly jump straight up into the air and switch the position of your legs, lowering into a squat on the new side as soon as you land.
Stand with hands clasped over your chest and legs hip-width apart. Take a big step to one side with one leg, push your hips back, bend the knee you’re stepping with and squat down while keeping the other leg straight and your chest facing forward. Hit a 90-degree angle with the bent leg, then push back into a starting position. Repeat on the other side.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Cross your right leg behind the left and back at a diagonal, bending into a squat so that the left comes to a 90-degree angle and the right bends into a comfortable lunge. Extend your right arm down to touch your left ankle. Now return to a neutral position but instead of putting the right foot down, step out to the other side and repeat the motions on the opposite side.