Scientists have known for years that many of the changes commonly attributed to aging actually arise from inactivity. Because of this, exercise can prevent and even reverse age-related changes such as…
- Diminished aerobic capacity
- Weight gain
- Muscle loss
- Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol and decreased levels of HDL cholesterol
- Slowed reflexes
- Lack of coordination
- Memory lapses
Now, a study published in Cell Metabolism reveals how physical activity changes the progression of aging on a cellular level.
Measuring Exercise’s Cellular Impact
The study’s senior author, Dr. Sreekumaran Nair, a diabetes researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN collaborated with a research team led by Matthew Robinson, currently an associate professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Nair, Robinson, and the team enrolled 36 men and 36 women in the study. Participants were first divided into two age groups: “young” participants between the ages of 18 and 30, and “older” participants between the ages of 65 and 80. Participants from both the “young” and “older” groups were assigned to one of three exercise programs:
- High-intensity interval biking
- Strength training using weights
- A combination of interval and strength training
The researchers took biopsies from participants’ thigh muscles and compared them to samples taken from a control group of sedentary volunteers. They determined that exercise produced measurable changes on a cellular level; perhaps most importantly, it increases mitochondrial capacity.
Recharging the Powerhouse of the Cell
Your mitochondria, commonly called “the powerhouses of the cell,” produce a molecule called adenosine triphosphate which transports chemical energy within cells. As we grow older, our mitochondria produce less and less adenosine triphosphate, and consequently, the energy capacity of our cells declines.
The research team found that exercise increased the mitochondrial capacity of the “young” group by 49% and the “older” group by an impressive 69%! In other words, exercise effectively reversed age-related changes and restored mitochondrial function to optimal levels!
Exercise Can Prevent Cellular Aging
The researchers believe that exercise’s ability to restore mitochondrial function, among other crucial cellular benefits, has important implications. “Unlike liver, muscle is not readily regrown,” says Dr. Nair. “The cells can accumulate a lot of damage.” Exercise appears to be able to reduce and even reverse the deterioration of muscle cells. Nair and his fellow researchers believe that exercise likely has the same beneficial, restorative effect on other tissues, too.
They plan to investigate the cellular benefits of exercise for other tissue types on the future, which they hope could yield methods for reducing the cellular impact of aging. As of now, Dr. Nair says, “There are substantial basic science data to support the idea that exercise is critically important to prevent or delay aging. There’s no substitute for that.”
How to Apply These Findings to Your Life
The goal behind the study was not to make recommendations about a specific exercise regimen, but for those interested in applying the data to their own lives, Dr. Nair has the following advice: “If people pick one exercise, I would recommend high-intensity interval training.” He added that the best option for a weekly program would be to combine three or four high-intensity interval workouts with two or three strength training sessions.