Mitochondria are the hard-working organelles found inside nearly every cell in the human body. (4) In addition to creating energy from the foods we eat, mitochondria break down harmful waste products, produce other chemicals important to the cell, and influence apoptosis (cell death). The sole focus of mitochondria is to support energy production on a cellular level. (4) And that’s why mitochondrial dysfunction can be so detrimental to your health.
In the first part of this series, we learned about how diet can impact mitochondrial function. Now it’s time to look at the effects of exercise, stress, and sleep.
Lifestyle factors for mitochondria support
Just as diet directly impacts the health and function of mitochondria, so does lifestyle. The activities in which we engage and the choices we make daily can significantly affect our mitochondria, and that’s especially true when it comes to physical activity.
The list of well-known health benefits associated with exercise is a long one and includes improvements in:
And now we can add mitochondrial support to the growing list of benefits that come from being physically active.
Mitochondria and exercise
Studies clearly show that exercise increases the number and size of mitochondria. How does exercise increase mitochondria? As it turns out, exercise stimulates mitochondrial enzyme activity and oxygen uptake by the cells. (1)
The authors of a 2018 review explain that exercise likely simultaneously targets multiple mitochondrial pathways including:
- Adenosine monophosphate protein kinase (AMPK)
- ATP synthesis via oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS)
- Fission and fusion
- Reactive oxygen species (ROS) (8)
Through these various pathways, exercise also helps protect cells from aging. As we age, the mitochondria’s ability to generate energy at the cellular level declines. Exercise has been shown to reverse this process.
This was illustrated by a 2017 study involving healthy volunteers who were put into one of three groups: high-intensity interval biking, strength training with weights, and combined strength training and interval training. The researchers found that high-intensity interval training was the best mitochondria-enhancing exercise. The younger volunteers experienced a 49% increase in mitochondrial capacity and the older volunteers experienced a whopping 69% increase in mitochondrial capacity. By making more mitochondria and building up mitochondrial proteins, the researchers concluded that exercise may help reverse age-related mitochondrial decline. (7)
These findings are consistent with a 2019 review that also described the anti-aging benefits of exercise as it relates to mitochondrial support. Aerobic exercise and resistance training have been shown to protect against mitochondrial dysfunction, thus helping to decelerate the aging process. (3)
Mitochondria and stress
Another lifestyle factor that impacts mitochondria is stress. While we can’t often control the amount of stress to which we are exposed, we can support our bodies during stressful times and incorporate stress management techniques into our daily routine. This is especially important to mitochondrial function.
In addition to everything else they do for our cells, mitochondria are also involved in the body’s stress response system. A 2018 systematic review paints a clear picture of the direct interaction that mitochondria have with stress and how that connection can eventually impact health. Researchers found that in 19 of 23 examined studies stress had negative results on mitochondria, such as decreased energy production and altered mitochondrial structure. Conversely, by supporting mitochondrial capacity through diet, exercise and other factors, we can help protect cellular function during times of stress. (5)
In another 2018 review, these same authors offer up the four main connections that mitochondria have to stress:
- Energy is required at the molecular (epi)genetic, cellular, organellar, and systemic levels to sustain components of stress responses.
- Glucocorticoids and other steroid hormones are produced and metabolized by mitochondria.
- Reciprocally, mitochondria respond to neuroendocrine and metabolic stress mediators.
- Experimentally manipulating mitochondrial functions alter physiological and behavioral responses to psychological stress. (6)
Mitochondria and sleep
While the research is not as robust compared to exercise, studies do indicate that lack of sleep can negatively impact mitochondria. A 2015 study featuring identical twins found that when the twins had short sleep duration and reduced sleep efficiency, they also had a significant reduction in mitochondria. In that study, short sleep was defined as less than seven hours per night and normal sleep was defined as seven to nine hours per night. (10)
Interestingly, another study found that patients with obstructive sleep apnea have mitochondrial DNA damage induced by increased oxidative stress, which helps support the connection between mitochondrial function and sleep quality. (2)
The bottom line
To address the health of mitochondria, we need to look at certain lifestyle factors. Physical activity, stress management, and sound sleep can all contribute to mitochondria support. Part three of this series will look more closely at the final factor in enhancing mitochondrial function—targeted dietary supplements.
- Huertas JR, Casuso RA, Agustin P, Cogliati S. (2019). Stay fit, stay young: mitochondria in movement: the role of exercise in the new mitochondrial paradigm. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2019.
- Lacedonia D, Carpagnano GE, Crisetti E, et al. (2015). Mitochondrial DNA alteration in obstructive sleep apnea. Respiratory Research. 16, 47.
- Nilsson MI, Tarnopolsky MA. (2019). Mitochondria and aging—the role of exercise as a countermeasure. Biology. 8(2), 40.
- Osellame, L. D., Blacker, T. S., & Duchen, M. R. (2012). Cellular and molecular mechanisms of mitochondrial function. Best practice & research. Clinical endocrinology & metabolism, 26(6), 711–723.
- Picard M, McEwen BS. (2018). Psychological stress and mitochondria: A systemic review. Psychosomatic Medicine. 80(2), 141-153.
- Picard M, McEwen BS, Epel ES, Sandi C. (2018). An energetic view of stress: focus on mitochondria. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. 49, 72-85.
- Robinson MM, Dasari S, Konopka AR, et al. (2017). Enhanced protein translation underlies improved metabolic and physical adaptations to different exercise training modes in young and old humans. Cell Metabolism. 25(3), 581.
- Trewin AJ, Berry BJ, Wojtovich AP. (2018). Exercise and mitochondrial dynamics: keeping in shape with ROS and AMPK. Antioxidants. 7(1), 7.
- US National Library of Medicine. (2019). Benefits of Exercise. MedlinePlus.
- Wrede JE, Mengel-From J, Buchwald D, et al. (2015). Mitochondrial DNA copy number in sleep duration discordant monozygotic twins. Sleep. 38(10), 1655-1658.