The Importance of Leg Strength to Overall Health

If you are like most people, you probably want strong legs, but you aren’t likely to go out of your way to really build up your leg muscles. Unless you are a serious runner, biker, or bodybuilder, you probably don’t make your leg strength a high priority, but that might be a serious mistake from a health perspective.

There is mounting evidence that leg strength is directly linked to how long you live. Because leg strength is often reflective of how active you are, it is not surprising that it is related to longevity. More active people are less likely to become obese and develop serious chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.    

If that isn’t enough to convince you to take a walk more often, then perhaps knowing that leg strength is also an indicator for cognitive ability later in life will change your mind. New studies indicate that higher leg strength early in life correlates with greater cognitive function years later. This means that greater leg strength can lower the risk of serious cognitive diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Stronger Legs Means You Live Longer

The Health, Aging and Body Composition Study, or Health ABC Study, was conducted from 1997 to 2014. More than 3,000 men and women aged 70 to 79 were recruited for the study. All participants were initially screened for the ability to comfortably walk a quarter mile or up 10 stairs.

The participants were then contacted annually to determine their health status. Periodic follow up continued for 16 years. The interviews included questions about major health events like heart attacks, cancers, dementia, and diabetes. The study also included annual clinical examinations that measured body composition, function, and strength. An MRI of brain activity was also included.

The Health ABC Study has provided a wealth of information about body changes among the elderly. One key finding was that those participants who exhibited higher leg strength had a lower risk of disability and early death.

Another study that evaluated more than 1,200 adults aged 55 and older found that leg strength was the most reliable predictor of physical functionality later in life. Other studies have linked lower thigh muscle mass to the likelihood of death from a cardiovascular disease.

What is truly interesting about these studies is that they appear to agree that overall muscle mass is not a good predictor of future health and longevity, but leg muscle mass is. There seems to be a strong correlation between the strength of your legs and the likelihood that you will remain active throughout your life, thus lowering the risk of developing a serious chronic health condition.

Leg Strength Predicts Healthy Brain Function

Health experts have long known that maintaining cognitive ability late into life is often related to consistent mental exercise. However, what has come to light only in recent years is that physical activity has a very strong influence on mental performance. Furthermore, emerging research suggests that the amount of grey matter in the brain later in life is directly related to the strength of your legs in your youth.

A study published in the journal Gerontology examined 324 female twins over a ten-year period. The study authors concluded that those participants with more leg strength at the start of the study exhibited more cognitive functionality than their twins.

Another study involving mice found a causal relationship between weight-bearing exercise and production of neural stem cells. Mice that had their hind legs immobilized for 28 days had a marked reduction in the number of neural stem cells in their brains. These stem cells are critical in proper neural function and prevent the onset of serious neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis.

Stay Active and Live Longer and Happier

The obvious conclusion from these studies is that you should maintain a physically active lifestyle for as long as possible. One of the keys to this is engaging in activities that promote leg strength like jogging, swimming, or cycling. High-impact workouts aren’t always necessary or even recommended, depending on your current state of health, so making it a habit to get up regularly and go for a walk can have real health benefits.

If you plan on adopting a more active lifestyle, you should first consult with your doctor who probably will have greater insight into what is most appropriate for you given your present health. Once you receive some medical recommendations, then it is important to start planning your exercise regimen.

You should, of course, start off slowly and gradually add difficulty. Not only will this limit your risk of injury, but it will also help maintain your enthusiasm. Too many people begin an exercise program with an excess of optimism but fail to sustain their commitment. Gradual increments can help you feel like you are improving your performance without getting frustrated when you eventually reach a plateau.

Here are some of the simplest but effective leg-strengthening exercises you can incorporate into your exercise program:

  • Squats—start by standing with your feet shoulder-length apart. Bend your knees until you reach a crouching position, then slowly return to your starting position. You should begin performing this exercise using just your body weight as resistance, but once you feel comfortable, you may want to start holding dumbbells to give your legs more of a workout.
  • Lunges—begin in a standing position with your feet slightly apart. Step out with one foot and lower your back knee until it is almost touching the floor. At this point your front leg should be at almost a 90-degree angle with your thigh parallel to the floor. Then return to your initial standing position. Once again, you may add weights as your strength improves.
  • Step ups—while standing in front of a bench or staircase, lift one leg up and step on the elevated surface before you. Then step up with the trailing foot and assume a standing position. Then reverse the motion until you are standing on the floor once again.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.