Mitochondria and Movement: The Perfect Power Couple

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I’ve written before about why a regular movement routine is as important as brushing your teeth. I prefer the term movement over exercise because “exercise” can have negative connotations for some and may feel unattainable, whereas most of us can figure out ways to experience regular movement with hopefully a little less pressure and more fun!

Movement helps decrease pain and improves our mood. It also aids in lowering stress, cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as helping improve sleep quality AND assisting in keeping the GI tract on track! With all of that, there’s yet another reason why movement is so critical, and it starts with our original little powerhouses, the mitochondria. 

The mitochondria are tiny but mighty organelles found in our cells, responsible for producing the energy that everything else depends on. Mitochondria are found in the highest concentration in the brain and heart but are also found in very high numbers in muscle tissue. A decreased number or dysfunctional mitochondria may lead to fatigue, brain fog and mood issues, including ADHD. A number of diseases are associated with mitochondrial problems, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue syndrome and early aging. Many things can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction, but for today I’m going to focus on the muscle/mitochondria connection. I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Mitochondria and muscle are the perfect example of this. Not using your various muscles leads to atrophy, leading to a decrease in mitochondria. The good news is that the opposite is also true – increasing our muscle mass leads to an increase in strength and better-functioning mitochondria. 

If you already have a movement routine, here are a few important things to consider. 

Zone 2 exercise, also known as mild exertion, is a great level for building your mitochondria. Depending on your fitness level, this could be a jog, a walk, a barre class, paddle boarding or biking. This is when your heart rate is elevated but still “comfortable.” 

Focus on strength training. Remember, more muscle mass = more mitochondria. You might be starting with your own body weight or using heavier weights depending on where you’re at – either, and both will be beneficial!

If you’re wiped out after exercise, you’re doing too much. Post-exertion fatigue equals a drain on your mitochondria and, quite frankly, your motivation. It’s hard to keep doing something that’s exhausting! You should feel energized after movement, so if you feel wiped out, scale back what you’re doing. 

If you don’t yet have a routine, summer is the perfect time to start – a little sun and getting outside can be a great motivator! A few things that are key to starting a new habit:

Start small. Beginning with no more than 10 minutes a day is a great, realistic place to start.

Be consistent. Commit to moving EVERY day. Set an alarm if you need a reminder to make it happen. 

Pair it with something else you enjoy. This could be walking with a friend, listening to a podcast or watching your favorite TV show while lifting some weights. 

After you’ve built the habit, it will be easier to increase your time and hopefully have some fun while doing it. Here’s to summer, more movement and happy mitochondria! 

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