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Published on December 12, 2015

Moving your legs also strengthens your brainMoving your legs also strengthens your brain

Health professionals know that exercise is good for all parts of the body including the brain, but until now there wasn’t any definitive proof. A new research study published in Gerontology,for the first time firmly establishes the link between strong legs and strong brains.

Researchers at King’s College in London studied 324 female twins for 10 years to see if muscle fitness could predict cognitive change in healthy women. Subjects did identical computerized tests at the beginning of the study and again at the end. The tests were designed to assess cognitive areas known to be particularly sensitive to aging, such as memory, processing speed and reaction time.

In a sub-study 12 years later, the researchers used MRI’s with 20 pairs of the same twins to assess the amount of grey matter in two regions of the brain associated with cognitive ability: the medial temporal lobe and the middle front gyrus.

The twins who were stronger physically, as measured by their leg strength, had significantly less deterioration of the brain than their weaker counterparts.

“I think the most important message to take from this study is that exercising your body is exercising your mind,” said Elissa Thompson, MD, a cardiologist at Cape Cod Healthcare’s Cardiovascular Center. “Exercise has been thought of as a potent factor that contributes to your overall vascular health including the health of the blood vessels in your brain. And the healthier the vascular bed is, the better that organ will work.”

This research is especially significant for older Americans who are convinced that sitting in an armchair doing crossword puzzles is going to prevent dementia, she said. While it can be a fun activity and challenges your mind, it will not ward off cognitive deterioration, as demonstrated by Constantine Lyketsos, M.D., director of the Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins.

The best way to ensure overall health for your brain – and your body – is to get moving.

“Walking is the simplest form and the best exercise that you can perform,” Dr. Thompson said. “On the Cape we are very fortunate. We have beautiful walking trails all over the Cape.”

Even walking for a half an hour a day makes a huge difference from a health standpoint, and it’s not the distance or the intensity of the workout that matters. Dr. Thompson said making the time commitment is the most important thing that people can start doing to improve their overall health in the long-run.

“The good thing about this study is that it shows there are probably multiple effects from exercise,” she said, pointing to the fact that age-related changes in immune function and inflammation are significantly reduced in individuals with a lifelong history of high physical activity.

“When we talk about arterial disease, whether it is coronary disease or arterial disease that affects brain function and cognition, all that disease is an inflammatory disease and your immune system plays a major role in that inflammatory disease,” she said.

Other health benefits are seen at a chemical level of the artery walls and in the neuro-endocrine system that monitors insulin.

Dr. Thompson said the King’s College study is a powerful one because of the length of time it covered and because it tested identical twins. This ensured that the subjects were the same age, shared the same genetic makeup and had the similar childhood experiences.

“What this shows is that if you are physically strong then you will tend to be healthier in a cognitive sense when you are older,” she said. “It’s an important message because we are losing ground. There is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and hypertension amongst young people because they are not exercising.”