When people think about growing new brain cells and optimizing brain health, they think about playing games like Sudoku or Luminosity. The idea being that we need mental games to flex our mental muscle.
The problem is that mental games like Sudoku and Luminosity have failed to demonstrate any meaningful evidence that it alters brain or cogntive function. They can make you good at Sudoku-related tasks or LUminosity-related games, but that’s about it.
There is one thing that has consistently shown improvements in cognitive, cellular, and neurological measures of brain function:
A 2018 study showed that the dis-use of leg muscles was associated with decreased production of neural stem cells and decreased maturation of the supporting cells in the brain.
While this study was done in rats, it does help to explain some important phenomenon seen in humans.
Neurodegenerative Disease, Leg Exercises, and Stem Cells
Neurodegenerative diseases consist of brain and nervous system illnesses like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, an ALS. One of the big commonalities with this class of neurological disorders is that they they will eventually take away your independent ability to move.
Dr. Danielle Botaii, one of the authors of the study, wanted to investigate whether it was the gradual deterioration or the nervous system compromised muscular function, or if there was a possibility that loss of mobility from these diseases accelerated brain deterioration. [Source]
The study used mice and restricted the use of their hind legs and were compared to control mice who roamed normally. The researchers found that the mice who didn’t have normal use of their legs showed:
- 70% decrease in neural stem cells compared to controls
- Decreased maturation of support cells in the brain
- Decreased expression of key genes for mitochondrial health
All of this to say that simply taking away the function of their legs could have significant ramifications for the ability of the brain to develop, adapt, and repair properly. With compromised stem cell production, less glial cell maturation, and worse energetics, you deal the brain a harder hand to play with. So much of our brain is built to provide action and resistance to gravity, and your legs play a huge role in that.
Squatting Your Way to a Better Brain
So the title of this article was definitely hyperbolic and click-baity. Guilty as charged. But the idea of squatting your way to better brain health sounds pretty sexy when you’re a doctor that lifts.
It’s super unlikely that your 1 rep max squat is going to be useful as a brain biomarker (though one can hope!), but there’s growing evidence that moving your legs frequently and often is phenomenal for your brain. One might even be able to make the case that running, jumping, squatting, and any other movement that keeps your legs strong may have more brain benefits than weight loss benefits.
There’s been ample evidence in mouse models that showed steady state running had significant effects on brain cell growth in a key memory area of the brain called the hippocampus. There’s also been compelling studies showing sedentary behavior reduced brain volume in parts of the brain which couldn’t be overcome by casual exercise.
There’s really no human evidence yet that shows that squatting will change the brain, but I feel strongly that preserving leg strength is one of those key things that differentiate those that age poorly and those that age with grace.
It’s definitely way too early, but I say we jump start the movement to 1RM for your Brain and let the evidence come in after the fact. Squat regularly and squat often friends.