Exercise and Mitochondria: Use It and Nurture It

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

March 21, 2022

Exercise and Mitochondria: Use It and Nurture It
Springtime and warmer weather brings anticipation of getting outside and exercising. Bike rides, long-walks, golf, baseball, and other activities are back on the agenda for many. Shedding the Pandemic and winter weight gain provides a strong incentive for others to start exercising. Whether you have been sedentary for a while or are an elite athlete, preparing your body and mitochondria by “preconditioning” prior to embarking on an exercise program can make a substantial difference in your exercise stress tolerance and recovery.

Mitochondria: Use It or Lose It

Mitochondria are the cellular energy factories inside all your organs and tissues. These tiny organelles are responsible for countless functions, most notably energy production. The single best way to help your body make new mitochondria and support its primary activity of energy production is through exercise. This is essential to improve energy mechanisms and affects all aspects of health. Mitochondrial health and energetics follow the principle – “Use it or lose it.”

Sedentary lifestyle, extended illness, or severe trauma where activity is limited greatly alters mitochondria function, causes muscle atrophy, and impairs metabolic health. Substantially higher levels of free radicals occur with mitochondria disuse and inactivity. This stress further impairs mitochondrial energetics and lowers tissue fitness.

Activity Levels Require a Healthy Balance

Whether you are an untrained or trained athlete, excessive exercise, beyond your current capacity, stresses mitochondria. If you are out of shape and jump into aggressive training, it will not work. Likewise, if you are an athlete, and train to exhaustion for an upcoming event, the overtraining can overwhelm mitochondrial capacity and tissue reserves. Massive amounts of free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS) are generated in response to energy production. This damages mitochondria and lends to injury and decreased performance.

Effects of Too Much “Use It” Stress without the Nurture

As you “use it,” or engage in an exercise program, fatigue may happen within minutes or after hours or days later depending on your fitness level. Symptoms of fatigue occur as mitochondrial energy production declines and free radical levels increase.

The effects of mitochondrial fatigue during exercise create muscle soreness, cramps, and spasms and diminish your capacity for strength and power. Mitochondrial fatigue affects your nervous system, which changes your gait, timing, balance and control, hand-eye coordination, thinking, and processing of information. Precise actions and movements become harder to do. Body mechanics become sloppy and compromised with a greater chance for injury.

As mitochondria get stressed, they swell, are injured from free radicals, and breakdown inside cartilage and joints. Over time cartilage cells dehydrate and degenerate, leading to joint deterioration. More information may be found in the article Mitochondria and Osteoarthritis: An Exciting New Frontier.

Mitochondrial fatigue from sedentary lifestyle, exercise exhaustion, and diminished antioxidant reserves also affects your whole body, as mitochondria are in all organs including your heart, gut, and immune system. It is very important to ensure your mitochondria are preconditioned with good nutrition and antioxidant reserves. Exercise and train appropriately to your fitness, but not to severe exhaustion with poor recovery.

Prepping or Preconditioning Your Mitochondria

Prepping or preconditioning your mitochondria with nutritional support in the hours and days prior to exercise helps nuture exercise stress tolerance and recovery in both unconditioned and elite athletes. Preconditioning your mitochondria refers to supplemental support of antioxidants, protein, vitamins, minerals, and cofactors required for mitochondrial biogenesis and repair.

Nutritional mitochondrial preconditioning helps prepare your mitochondria for the upcoming workload placed upon them and the resultant oxidative stress. It’s like preparing to go on a trip. You need to have your plane tickets, passport/license, personal items, and different types of clothing ahead of the trip. If you miss one of these things, the trip is harder to do.

Preconditioning Mitochondrial Nutrients

Fundamental nutrients for mitochondrial preconditioning include adequate protein, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, acetyl-L-carnitine. These nutrients help offset the effects of muscle atrophy and free radicals caused by inactivity and support the production of new mitochondria. Vitamins B1, B2, and B3, magnesium, manganese, lipoic acid, N-acetyl-cysteine, glutathione, zinc, copper, iron, and selenium are critical for mitochondrial energy production and antioxidant protection. Other nutrients like vitamins C and E along with silymarin, PQQ, resveratrol, quercetin, and omega-3 oils like DHA are helpful in mitochondrial preconditioning and post exercise recovery.

Turmeric/Curcumin is also very helpful in mitochondria health and exercise recovery. A randomized control trial published in 2019 demonstrated that men who took turmeric or curcumin prior to an exercise event experienced lower levels of pro-inflammatory interleukin-8 and less muscle soreness in the days after the event. The turmeric supported group also experienced improved muscle contractile strength and range of motion.

Similar positive results were found in a 2021 randomized control trial with young women athletes evaluating exercise recovery. Turmeric supplementation significantly improved antioxidant markers and VO2 max levels and reduced C-reactive protein levels.

Unconditioned and elite athletes who reach exhaustion levels with exercise produce vast amounts of free radicals that cause mitochondrial and tissue damage. This level of activity uses vast amounts of glutathione and other antioxidants to quench the damage. If antioxidant levels are inadequate, recovery is slow. Low glutathione levels also greatly impair your immune system and detoxification capacity. Think about the athletic event(s) that you have trained for and accomplished only to experience an upper respiratory infection or flu shortly after.

Healthy physical activity and fitness is essential to aging well. From prenatal development with baby kicking in the womb, to toddlers climbing and running, on through the geriatric years and maintaining independence, exercise is an essential part of life. Without exercise your body readily mal-adapts to insufficient physical activity and sets the course for chronic disease with a decline in quality of life and lifespan. Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases.

Adults, especially 60 years of age and older, are highly prone to loss of muscle mass or sarcopenia and impaired mitochondrial function. Children and young adults who have a sedentary lifestyle also experience the ill effects of mitochondrial dysfunction, muscle atrophy, and increased oxidative stress with sedentary lifestyle and mitochondrial disuse. What are your kids learning from you and your lifestyle?

Studies show that being physically active and fit lifelong provides significant protection against the decline of several age-related disorders. If you have not engaged in exercise for some time, studies show it is “better late, then never.” Preconditioned mitochondrial support and exercise helps your physical ability and strength to get out of a chair, walk, have gait stability and balance, and your overall ability to manage daily activities as you age.

If daily activities have become harder to do, you feel old before your time, and exercise is a thing of the past, gear up for some activity this spring with new sneakers and a whole foods diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, healthy omega-3 oils, and protein! If you are an elite athlete gearing up for the next major event, make mitochondria preconditioning part of your training routine and recovery for physical fitness. Great choices include Stress Helper, Super Coenzyme Q10 Ubiquinol, Muscle Mag, Resveratrol Ultra 500, and Repair Plus. I hope this has inspired you to get back in shape! It makes me want to improve my physical fitness and mitochondrial dynamics!

Share this content



Energize, strengthen, and protect your health with the highest quality daily essentials!