There isn’t a diet, drug, gene editor, surgery, supplement, or stem cell treatment that has a more profound or beneficial effect on health and longevity than exercise. Research has confirmed that regular workouts decrease rates of cancer, diabetes, cardiac disease, hypertension, and dementia. In fact, active folks live an average of ten years longer than couch potatoes. Simply put, exercise is medicine. While it seems only natural that working our muscles should help promote longer and more productive lives, science has recently started to unravel the secrets of how exercise really works.
Within minutes of beginning any type of exercise, our body undergoes a kind of metabolic alchemy. Chemical changes called methylations rain down our chromosomes causing the DNA to change its shape. This blocks the production of some unhealthy proteins while ramping up new enzyme pipelines. Some of these enzymes spike the growth and energy output of mitochondria in the muscle. This burst of energy helps drive up blood flow and strength — changes that last long after the workout ends. Muscles contract when myosin “hooks” are triggered by calcium and energy released from adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to grab and climb twisted, troponin-beaded actin “ladders” in a ratcheting motion (see figure).
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Ratchet and Clank: The power stroke of a muscle contraction has four steps.
1. Myosin sticks to actin at active sites like a grappling hook.
2. ATP powers the myosin head to ratchet backward. ADP and phosphate are kicked out by the enzyme ATPase as myosin slides past action.
3. New ATP attaches to the myosin, breaking its cross-bridge to actin. This cocks the myosin trigger for the next power stroke on the actin filament.
4. Calcium binds to the troponin beads on the twisty actin filament, exposing an active site for the next cross-bridge to form. This keeps repeating until you run out of calcium, ATP, or willpower.
Every time your cells divide, the chromosome must unravel and the DNA unzips to allow copying. This is a chaotic process and leads to many coding errors and damages the chromosomes. Each time your cells divide, the DNA-protective telomere caps keep eroding. When the telomeres have finally been burned off completely, the DNA catastrophically unravels and the cell dies. Repairing DNA damage and cleaning up defective proteins drains your energy reservoir and ages you. Exercise helps produce proteins that protect the chromosomes by lengthening telomeres. New studies have shown that people who exercise regularly have chromosomes that look nine years younger than those that don’t.
All this energy production in our muscles leads to the build-up of lactic acid waste products that cause the all too familiar and uncomfortable muscle “burn.” It’s a good thing that our brains have evolved to crave exercise. While the brain typically uses glucose as its primary energy source, it prefers lactic acid. In fact, the brain quickly recycles nearly one-third of all the lactic acid energy waste products during exercise. Nice.
This cascade of protein release also triggers hormones in the brain that are fed by a spike in circulating ketones. In many ways, exercise fertilizes brain and neuron function. Blood flow increases both in the brain and muscles, making you feel more alert and increasing strength. Not too shabby. Some proteins fragments released during exercise also help decrease your cancer risk by inactivating potentially dangerous growth factors. Overall metabolism ramps up during exercise in response to the release of a protein activator called PGC-alpha. This messenger accelerates energy production, thickens muscle fibers, and builds more mitochondria to up power output. It also helps improve autophagy — a crucial process that lets the body locate, repair, and recycle banged up enzymes and cells before they cause cancer or diseases like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or dementia.
You would think that all the increased energy consumption and power driven by exercise would help you lose weight. That is not entirely true. Working out can make your body healthier, but you need to eat less if you want to lose weight. There are two reasons why exercise alone is not enough to lose weight. The first is that exercise tends to increase appetite and calorie consumption. The second is that the body is ruthlessly efficient. We use the least number of calories to complete a task. The longer the body does something, the easier and more efficient it gets. That’s why you must keep changing both the kind of exercise that you do and the effort you log every day. You can’t outrun a bonbon.
The good news is that the longer you exercise, the better it gets. You really can’t work out too much if you vary your exercise program. Although you can’t grow new muscle fibers, the ones you do have get bigger after exercise. This is the result of the body healing microscopic stress damage. This inflammatory response produces the muscle aches that you get a day or two after strenuous exercise. Embrace the pain and let it feed your body.
So there you have it. Exercise helps your body and brain starting at the molecular level. The kind of activity you choose is less important than the simple act of committing to a daily program. Whether you run, bike, lift weights, swim, or pick up clogging, start working out at least 30-minutes a day. Your chromosomes will thank you for it.
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