Leg Exercise Critical to Brain and Nervous System Health

Updated: May 27


Ground-breaking research in Frontiers in Neuroscience indicates that neurological health is dependent not only on signals from the brain to muscles, but also muscles to brain. This research gives doctors some reasoning why motor neuron disease, MS, spinal muscular atrophy and other neurological diseases result in rapid decline when movement becomes limited.

“Our study supports the notion that people who are unable to do load-bearing exercises – such as patients who are bed-ridden, or even astronauts – not only lose muscle mass, but their body chemistry is altered at the cellular level and even their nervous system is adversely impacted,” says Dr. Raffaella Adami from the Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy.

The study: Over a 28-day period, mice were restricted from using their hind legs, while allowing regular movement in their front legs. The mice ate and groomed normally without exhibiting stress.


At the end of the trial: The subventricular zone of the brain was examined. In mammals, this area of the brain maintains nerve cell health and produces new neurons from neural stem cells.


What researchers found: Limiting physical activity resulted in a 70% decrease of neural stem cells when compared to the control group of mice. Both neurons and oligodendrocytes (cells that support & insulate nerve cells) didn’t fully mature when exercise was severely reduced.

Why is this research important? The research shows weight-bearing exercise in legs sends signals to the brain that are vital for producing healthy neural cells that are essential for both the brain and nervous system. Reduced activity depresses the body’s ability to produce new nerve cells – vital building blocks that assist in handling stress and adapt to challenges in our lives.

Analyzing individual cells, researchers found that reduced exercise lowers the amount of oxygen in the body creating an anaerobic environment altering metabolism. In addition, a gene involved in the health of mitochondria (gene CDK5Rap1), is also negatively impacted, thereby affecting the release of energy via a feedback loop.

“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," says Adami. "Neurological health is not a one-way street with the brain telling the muscles 'lift,' 'walk,' and so on."

The results of this study spotlight cardio-vascular health issues ranging from a sedentary lifestyle to diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy, MS, and motor neuron disease, etc.

Dr. Daniele Bottai, also from the Università degli Studi di Milano states: "The question I asked myself was: is the outcome of these diseases due exclusively to the lesions that form on the spinal cord in the case of spinal cord injury and genetic mutation in the case of SMA, or is the lower capacity for movement the critical factor that exacerbates the disease?"

Movement has a critical role on the human body, not only for weight management, but also, managing the body’s ecosystem at the neurological level for function, the ability to maintain health and cope with stress.

Frontiers. “Leg Exercise Is Critical to Brain and Nervous System Health.” Medical Xpress - Medical Research Advances and Health News, Medical Xpress, 23 May 2018, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-05-leg-critical-brain-nervous-health.html.

Raffaella, et al. “Reduction of Movement in Neurological Diseases: Effects on Neural Stem Cells Characteristics.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 30 Apr. 2018, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2018.00336/full.


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