Mitochondria play a huge role in our energy levels and our metabolic functions. Can we help clients make the most of these cells’ power?

As tiny as these organelles seem, mitochondria are the trillions of microscopic energy factories that power the body, turning the food we eat and the air we breathe into the energy that drives every biochemical reaction within the body’s cells. That energy gets used for everything from flexing muscles to eliminating brain fog to making essential enzymes and hormones.

A healthy individual at rest produces his body weight equivalent in adenosine triphosphate (ATP) every day. If one is exercising at the peak of one’s physical ability,  this number can spike to 0.5 -1.0 kg per minute—proof of intense metabolic activity. A large amount of adenosine triphosphate must be produced by the mitochondria every second of every day, since the human body lacks the capacity to store ATP.

Fighting the Clock and the Environment

A young human body contains an abundance of mitochondria. But, as with every other system in the body, our mitochondria decline in both size and quantity over time, as does much of the energy we once took for granted. In fact, researchers now believe that this decline may facilitate the aging process, most notably in terms of energy loss. Another consideration is how many brain and cardiovascular system disorders that impact so many of us as time goes on.

Mitochondria are especially susceptible to environmental toxins and oxidative damage. Research now shows that the serious situation of oxidative stress in cells can trace its origins to the leakage of oxygen and high-energy electrons from the mitochondria. Mitochondrial reactive oxygen leakage tends to predict longevity across species—the better a species does at protecting its mitochondria, the greater its life expectancy.

Studies also suggest that meditation and other relaxation-based techniques can reduce oxidative stress, decreasing mitochondrial damage over time. Sleep, too, confers a protective aspect to our brains by clearing out the daily accumulation of neural waste products, indicating yet again how the body cleverly and miraculously preserves its mitochondria.

The Role of Exercise

A regular HIIT routine will build up muscular endurance as well as the number and size of the mitochondria that power those muscles. A new study, published in the March 7 issue of Cell Metabolism, found that exercise — in particular high-intensity interval training among cyclists and power walkers — induced cells to manufacture additional proteins for their energy-producing mitochondria and protein-building ribosomes, effectively arresting aging at the cellular level.

“Based on everything we know, there’s no substitute for these exercise programs when it comes to delaying the aging process,” said study senior author Sreekumaran Nair, M.D, a diabetes researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “These things we are seeing cannot be done by any medicine.”

The Research Favors HIIT

This aforementioned study enrolled 36 men and 36 women from two age groups: the “young” volunteers, ages 18-30, and “older” volunteers, ranging in age from 65-80. The volunteers participated in one of three different exercise programs: high-intensity interval biking, strength training with weights, and one that combined strength training and interval training.

High-intensity interval training yielded the biggest benefits at the cellular level. The younger volunteers in the interval training group saw a 49% increase in mitochondrial capacity, while the older volunteers saw an even more dramatic increase of 69%.  The high-intensity biking regimen also rejuvenated the volunteers’ ribosomes, those organelles responsible for producing our cells’ protein building blocks. The researchers found a peak in mitochondrial protein synthesis, which explains the enhanced mitochondrial function and muscle hypertrophy. The most impressive finding points to the increase in muscle protein content. In some cases, the high-intensity biking regimen actually seemed to reverse the age-related decline in mitochondrial function and proteins needed for muscle building.

The study of activity with regard to cell health ranks as a high priority in laboratories delving into mitochondrial biogenesis. Intense exercise seems to initiate a sequence of events resulting in expansion of the mitochondrial network within muscle cells. This pathway becomes impaired with chronic inactivity, inflammation and toxin exposure, leading to reduced aerobic capacity and an uptick in mitochondrially mediated apoptosis, or cell death. This situation can easily contribute to muscle atrophy. Resuming or embarking upon an active lifestyle can ameliorate this metabolic dysfunction, improve endurance, and help maintain muscle mass.

A Gut Reaction

Supporting the mitochondria nutritionally serves as great a purpose as removing factors that block its function. Optimizing nutrient status to limit oxygen and high-energy electron leakage in the ETC (electron transport chain) ranks as perhaps the most powerful anti-aging strategy we can recommend to clients. Adhering to a “cleaner” meal plan will lead to greater success in removing unnecessary toxins. Gut health in general supports the immune system and healthy management of inflammation. Recent evidence shows a relationship between mitochondria and gut microbiota, a topic generating much scientific attention. The intestinal flora can potentially regulate key enzymes involved in mitochondrial biogenesis. These powerhouse cells can regulate the gut microbiota by modulating intestinal barrier function. Recently, scientists observed that certain genetic variations within the mitochondrial genome could potentially influence intestinal microbiota activity.

Nutritional Awareness

While the mitochondria can utilize either fatty acids or carbohydrates to create energy-producing ATP, doing so with fats creates fewer free radical by-products. Adhering to a lower carbohydrate diet encourages mitochondria to burn fat for energy. Foods densely packed with vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants always benefit the body: high-quality, pasture-raised animals, wild-caught fish, organic veggies, and “clean” fat sources such as avocados, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds.

Like we always recommend to clients, shying away from foods that spike blood sugar as well as processed foods holds unwanted pounds and body fat at bay, both of which promote inflammation that damages mitochondria. Knowing that what we eat exerts a powerful effect upon gut microbiota, always choose food sources wisely.

The more mitochondria we have, the more their workload diminishes, thereby supporting an optimal energy supply. We can facilitate this process by understanding that mitochondria require a diet rich in antioxidants –colorful vegetables, low sugar fruits, herbs and spices and other healthy foods that supply essential nutrients. Three antioxidants in particular, alpha lipoic acid , L-carnitine and Coenzyme Q10, support energy and protect mitochondrial biogenesis, a term referring to the process of renewal and increase of mitochondrial cells. Another plant-derived antioxidant, resveratrol, found in grapes, red wine, and dark chocolate, also improves mitochondrial function; incorporate these delicious foods into the diet, but in moderation as a special treat.

Temperature Extremes Encourage Growth

Mother Nature can lend a hand in boosting the production of mitochondria, too. Exposure to sensible amounts of sunlight can prove quite beneficial. At the other extreme, exposure to quick bursts of cold temperatures, whether in the great outdoors for 20 -30 seconds a shot or under a cold shower, can also encourage new mitochondrial growth. Somehow doing so fools the body into “survival mode”, thereby sending mitochondria production into high gear.

In summary, we have learned that the powerhouses of our body are not necessarily huge muscles or long-lasting endurance, but rather the tiny and mighty mitochondria. The takeaway points that we as professionals can encourage our clients to understand are relatively simple:

  • Decrease toxin exposure: the huge metabolic activity of the mitochondria renders them particularly susceptible to environmental toxicity.
  • Consume nutrients that protect the mitochondria from oxidative stress and that facilitate ATP production.
  • Build some muscle mass. Even muscle tissue with mitochondrial damage, such as that found in individuals with Parkinson’s disease, can be encouraged to promote increased ATP production through strength training.

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Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!