The Mitochondrial Connection


Mitochondria are the pint-sized powerhouses of the cell, responsible for producing energy and essential for overall health and well-being, and they produce more than 90% of the energy in your body’s cells.

Mitochondria help turn food components like sugars, fats, and proteins into energy our cells can use while we exercise and a whopping 40% of each heart muscle cell and 25% of each liver cell are made up of them. Without mitochondria, your cells would not be able to survive and your body would not be able to function properly.

Mighty Mitochondria

Almost universally described as the ‘powerhouses of the cell,’ mitochondria are found throughout cells in the human body. But for the scope of our conversation, let’s zero in on their role within the skeletal and cardiac muscles. Despite being a mere 0.0000195 to 0.000039 of an inch in size (which is roughly 2,000th to 4,000th the size of a pinhead), they occupy up to a third of a muscle cell’s volume – and they can be game changers in the realm of athletics due to their role in the synthesis of energy.

Mitochondria are super skilled at taking oxygen and glucose (our blood sugar) and converting them into energy to power our heart and muscles. This transformation process turns glucose into pyruvate and NADH, which then, with the aid of oxygen, produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – the cellular ‘currency’ responsible for energy transactions. ATP produced from this process fuels our activities and allows us to jump, move and run.

The Role of ATP

ATP is more than a molecule; it powers muscle movement. Inside muscle cells, protein filaments named Actin and Myosin interact, and ATP plays a crucial role in this mechanism, driving muscle contractions.

To fathom ATP’s significance, consider this: the rigid state of Rigor mortis after death results from the absence of ATP. Similarly, running out of glucose, oxygen, or ATP during an intensive race leads to what athletes refer to as “Blowing up’, ‘Hitting the wall’ or ‘Bonking’. 

This energy concoction isn’t just about sugar and oxygen, though. Calcium also plays a part, aiding in the transformation of glucose and in the interaction of Actin and Myosin filaments.

Oxygen Dependency

Every breath you take matters more than you realize. The production rate of ATP in the presence of oxygen outpaces the rate in its absence by 13 times. So, the next time your heart rate monitor sounds the alarm during a rigorous exercise, it’s hinting at the impending shortfall in ATP production. And as you consistently ask your body for more energy through exercise, your muscle cells adapt by producing even more mitochondria.

The more mitochondria you have in your cells (your muscle cells, specifically), the more muscle-contracting energy you can produce. Exercise is more efficient and workouts feel more comfortable as a result. More mitochondria also increase the body’s ability to utilize oxygen during exercise, resulting in greater endurance and stamina.

Extend Your Lifespan

While genetics, mainly from your mother, play a role in determining the quality and quantity of your mitochondria, you can actually boost their performance through exercise – and in doing so, possibly extend your lifespan.

Studies indicate that regular low intensity workouts not only increase the number of mitochondria but also improve their function.

When you exercise around zone 2 level (where you can converse with someone, but its not comfortable to do so for long) for a minimum of thirty minutes, you can improve your mitochondrial flexibility.

Flexibility in this sense refers to the ability of the mitochondria to efficiently switch between different fuel sources like carbohydrates and fats.

So when you train at this speed/duration,  you are able tap into your body’s aerobic energy system. This pushes the mitochondria to produce energy over extended periods, and as a result, the body adapts by increasing the number, size, and efficiency of mitochondria.

If you consistently train in this zone, the body becomes better at oxidizing fat for fuel, a process heavily reliant on the mitochondria which leads to increased mitochondrial density and improved mitochondrial function, thereby enhancing metabolic flexibility. Which is what we all want!

Health is Wealth

Research has shown that people with better mitochondrial health and flexibility have a reduced risk of many age-related diseases and conditions.

Efficient mitochondria function is associated with better mitophagy, a process where damaged mitochondria are broken down and recycled. This process ensures that cells retain a population of healthy mitochondria, which is important for cellular health and function.

Mitochondria are a also primary source of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which, in excessive amounts, can cause oxidative stress and damage cells. Healthy mitochondria produce fewer ROS, reducing oxidative stress on the body which has been linked to aging and many age-related diseases including type 2 diabetes.

So, in essence, regular slow but sustained cardio exercise can promote mitochondrial flexibility, help you live a longer life and allow your body to more efficiently use different energy sources based on the demands placed upon it. What’s not to love?

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