Hit the Gym and Experience the Cellular Benefits of Exercise
Exercise changes your body in many ways, some of which you can see in the mirror. The number on the scale may shift a bit and your clothes may start to fit better with each mile (or kilometer) you walk, jog, or swim. These scale and non-scale victories might be how you measure the success of your exercise routine, but have you ever considered the cellular benefits of exercise?
Your cells are the starting point for all the changes that regular exercise can bring. And there are many cellular benefits of exercise that can lead to full-body transformations. Cardiovascular and strength training exercises affect cells throughout your body. From your heart and brain to the white blood cells of your immune system, your cellular health is optimized when you exercise.
Cardio: It’s Not Just for Your Heart
Classic cardiovascular exercises send blood pumping and elevate your heart rate. You might add cardio to your training to build your stamina and endurance. But you’ll be doing more than that. Cardio can be a cellular health exercise, too.
Several cell types respond to cardiovascular exercise (cardiac cells included). Cellular health is supported by the quick, heart-pounding movements of cardio. Check out how cells all over your body respond to this fast-paced form of exercise:
Let’s start with the cells closest to the action of cardio exercise. Cardiac make up your heart tissue. Your heart is essentially a super muscle, with an impressive compression force that pushes blood out to your entire body.
The muscle cells in your heart are highly specialized, and they don’t regenerate nearly as often as the other cells in your body (only about one percent of heart cells renew themselves every year). But there is a way to support cardiac cells and optimize their regeneration—exercise, cardio to be exact.
A 2018 study of mice helped scientists draw a link between cardio exercise and heart cell growth. Mice are frequently used as model organisms for human biology research. Mouse biology is very close to human biology and their genes work in many of the same ways human genes do.
Researchers found that mice with access to a treadmill in their enclosures chose to run approximately five kilometers every day. Their heart health was monitored and the scientists administering the experiment used DNA markers to track the growth of cardiac cells.
The results were spectacular, and favorable for the mice that had access to a treadmill. Mice who exercised made more than four times the number of new cardiac cells than their non-exercising counterparts.
This study helped cement the cellular benefits of exercise for your heart cells. So, if you have access to a treadmill (or a pair of running shoes and the open road) try putting in a few miles (or kilometers) the next time you want to focus on cellular health exercise.
Anecdotally, many people believe you can train your brain like any other muscle in your body. It’s not a completely accurate statement since there are no muscle fibers in your brain. But if the goal of brain training is to strengthen the connections between neurons and build new neural networks, then exercise can definitely help whip your brain cells into shape.
Neurons, like muscle cells, can change as you exercise. Increased blood flow to the brain during exercise creates an oxygen-rich environment that your neurons thrive in. Extra oxygen and the release of neurotransmitters during exercise foster the growth of brain cells and the development of new neural pathways. You need these new neuronal connections to keep your brain “flexible” and to support your ability to learn new skills and make memories.
So, in a way, cardio exercises actually work out your brain, too. Movements that ramp up your heart rate are simultaneously stimulating your brain cells to grow and create new connections. Brain cells respond to heart-pumping exercise much like your large muscle groups respond to strength training—they grow!
If you’re looking to mobilize the cells of your immune system, try to crank out a sweat session a couple times per week. Your white blood cells (WBCs) respond to exercise by increasing their circulation in the bloodstream. More WBCs in circulation means your immune system is primed and ready to take on germs that dare make an appearance.
The effects of exercise on immunity are well documented. You temporarily initiate your body’s immune response when you exercise. This allows your body to keep joint aches and soreness to a minimum after you work out.
With regular exercise you’ll experience a slight uptick in the number of WBCs that enter your bloodstream and stay in circulation. As a result, people who exercise regularly have been shown to experience fewer seasonal bugs and colds.
This phenomenon occurs only when regular, moderate exercise is performed. Consistent days of high-intensity exercise can trigger the opposite response from immune cells. “Overtraining syndrome” is the decline in immune performance that some ultra-marathoners and triathletes experience during training. Long periods of high-intensity exercises can put your body in a constant state of stress, actually hampering your immunity.
To hit the sweet spot of immune cell support, exercise moderately and consistently. A good way to identify what moderate exercise means for you is to gauge your breathing effort during your workouts. Try to aim for 70 percent of your maximum heart rate (you can calculate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220 beats per minute). That’ll keep you in the zone for cellular health and help you stay out of range of potentially damaging exercise intensity.
Telomeres (All Cells)
Cardiovascular movement influences the health of cells more generally, too. That’s the case when it comes to the telomeres that cap the ends of each cells’ chromosomes.
Chromosomes store all the DNA cells need to replicate (make copies of themselves). These chromosomes are used over and over again for multiple replication cycles. Telomeres are repeating segments of DNA that reside at the ends of each chromosome. These telomeres act as buffers to protect the chromosome from incorrect DNA replication.
Over time, telomeres start to shrink as more copies of each chromosome are made. Shortened telomeres lead to cellular aging and eventual death. So, it’s important to preserve the length of telomeres for as long as possible.
That’s where cardiovascular exercise comes into play. Regular cardio can slow the shortening of telomeres and moderate cellular aging. This is because cardiovascular exercise can affect the level of telomere-preserving enzymes in the cell.
The enzyme that protects telomeres from shortening is called telomerase. Exercise has been shown to elevate the amount of telomerase present in cells. And more available telomerase means telomeres are safeguarded from premature shortening.
Telomeres are at the center of the study of aging. While their role in general health and old age is not clear, one thing is certain. Exercise is great for keeping telomere caps from shrinking too soon and can positively affect the health of each of your cells.
More Cellular Health Exercises—Strength Training
Jogging through the neighborhood or riding a stationary bike exercise your cardiovascular system. But another method of exercise involves slower, more concentrated movements. It’s called strength training. Your heart rate won’t climb as high with strength training, but this form of exercise provides many benefits to your muscle cells.
Strength training in a gym setting often focuses on entire muscle groups, but the real effect of resistance exercises on muscles can be found at the cellular level. The cellular benefits of exercise for muscle cells begin rather uniquely. Injury to muscle cells during strength training is the launching point for these cellular benefits.
The cells that make up your larger muscle groups are injured (ever so slightly) when you strength train. Resistance exercises—like planks, push-ups, and squats—all create microscopic injuries to individual muscle cells. To repair themselves, muscle cells need to recruit the help of neighboring satellite cells.
Muscle fibers are surrounded by cells waiting to be called up to active duty when muscles are injured. These satellite cells fuse with injured muscle fibers and donate their organelles to help strengthen the muscle cell. Organelles from satellite cells—like mitochondria and nuclei—are valuable additions to muscle fibers. These organelles allow muscle cells to produce more energy and force during contraction.
Without exercise to trigger these micro-injuries, your muscles would never grow and strengthen in this way. Strength training is an important component of any exercise routine because it plays such a critical role in the health and growth of muscle cells.
Reap the Cellular Benefits of Exercise
Noticeable changes in your body and overall health are the reward of exercising regularly. And below the surface of it all, your cells thrive when you exercise. Think of the trillions of cells that make up your body when you are prepping for your next workout.
Shifting the focus of your workouts to the cellular level can help you appreciate how important your efforts are to even the smallest components of your body. Keep up the cardio and add in strength training so every cell in your body can experience the cellular benefits of exercise.