Mitochondria are the hard-working organelles found inside most cells in the human body. 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 health on a deep cellular level. 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 how exercise, stress, and sleep (or lack thereof) can impact our mighty mitochondria.

Lifestyle factors that influence mitochondria

Just as diet directly impacts the health and function of mitochondria, so does lifestyle. What we do can make a huge difference to our mitochondria, and that’s especially true when it comes to physical activity.

The list of health benefits associated with exercise is a long one and includes improvements in: (1)

And now we can add mitochondria support to the growing list of benefits that come from being physically active. The fact is, if you are searching for the most powerful anti-aging “medicine” available, you will find it in exercise.

man and woman squatting in the gym with exercise balls

Among the many benefits that it offers, exercise increases the number and size of mitochondria.

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. (2) Exercise quite literally pumps up our cells.

The authors of a 2018 review explain that exercise likely simultaneously targets multiple mitochondrial pathways including: (3)

  • Reactive oxygen species (ROS)
  • Adenosine monophosphate protein kinase (AMPK)
  • ATP synthesis via oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS)
  • Fission and fusion

Through these various pathways, exercise also helps keep cells from aging. As we age, 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. (4) 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.

These findings are consistent with a 2019 review that also described the anti-aging benefits of exercise as it relates to mitochondrial support. (5)

Mitochondria and stress

Another lifestyle factor that impacts mitochondria is stress. While we can’t often control the amount of stress we are under, 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 mitochondria 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. (6) Researchers found that both acute and chronic stress influence aspects of mitochondrial function that make cells more vulnerable to the negative health consequences of stress. Conversely, by shoring up mitochondrial capacity through diet, exercise and other factors, we can help protect cellular function during times of stress.

In another 2018 review, these same authors offer up the four main connections that mitochondria have to stress: (7)

  1. Energy is required at the molecular (epi)genetic, cellular, organellar, and systemic levels to sustain components of stress responses;
  2. Glucocorticoids and other steroid hormones are produced and metabolized by mitochondria;
  3. Reciprocally, mitochondria respond to neuroendocrine and metabolic stress mediators; and
  4. Experimentally manipulating mitochondrial functions alter physiological and behavioral responses to psychological stress.
woman sleeping next to a light

Stress and lack of sleep often go hand in hand so it’s not surprising that sleep also has an impact on mitochondrial function.

Mitochondria and sleep

While the research is not as robust as it is with 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. (8) More sleep means more mitochondria. In that study, short sleep was defined as less than 7 hours per night and normal sleep was defined as 7 to 9 hours per night.

Interestingly, another study found that patients with obstructive sleep apnea have mitochondrial DNA damage induced by increased oxidative stress, which helps confirm the connection between mitochondrial function and sleep quality. (9)

The bottom line

To address the health of mitochondria, we need to look at certain lifestyle factors including physical activity, stress management, and sound sleep. Improving these lifestyle factors can also improve mitochondrial function.

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  1. US National Library of Medicine. Benefits of Exercise. MedlinePlus. Accessed November 2019.
  2. Huertas JR, Casuso RA, Agustin P, Cogliati S. Stay fit, stay young: mitochondria in movement: the role of exercise in the new mitochondrial paradigm. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2019;2019.
  3. Trewin AJ, Berry BJ, Wojtovich AP. Exercise and mitochondrial dynamics: keeping in shape with ROS and AMPK. Antioxidants. 2018;7(1):7.
  4. Robinson MM, Dasari S, Konopka AR, et al. Enhanced protein translation underlies improved metabolic and physical adaptations to different exercise training modes in young and old humans. Cell Metabolism. 2017;25(3):581.
  5. Nilsson MI, Tarnopolsky MA. Mitochondria and aging—the role of exercise as a countermeasure. Biology. 2019;8(2):40.
  6. Picard M, McEwen BS. Psychological stress and mitochondria: a systemic review. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2018;80(2):141-153.
  7. Picard M, McEwen BS, Epel ES, Sandi C. An energetic view of stress: focus on mitochondria. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. 2018;49:72-85.
  8. Wrede JE, Mengel-From J, Buchwald D, et al. Mitochondrial DNA copy number in sleep duration discordant monozygotic twins. Sleep. 2015;38(10):1655-1658.
  9. Lacedonia D, Carpagnano GE, Crisetti E, et al. Mitochondrial DNA alteration in obstructive sleep apnea. Respiratory Research. 2015;16:47.