What Goes On In Your Body When You Exercise

For decades, scientists have proclaimed the benefits of exercise—everything from lowering the risk of heart disease to improving mental health.

But now researchers have gone deeper into the body to discover that things are happening at the cellular level when we exercise that don’t happen when we are sedentary. What they’ve discovered is good news for people who already exercise, and it should be motivation to exercise for those who don’t.

Tissue Crosstalk Triggers the Body’s Adaptations to Exercise. On Jan. 9, 2018, a study was published in Cell Metabolism that showed that communication between tissues during exercise can result in biological changes that involve various systems of the body.

A research team at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia used both animals and humans to learn, for the first time, that exercise allows the body’s tissues to communicate with each other by using tiny protein-filled packages known as vesicles.

These sacs contain genetic material and proteins that carry messages to other parts of the body, including fat cells, muscle cells, and brain cells, all of which have a connection to the liver.

In human subjects who cycled for one hour, there was an increase of more than 300 message-carrying proteins when compared to participants who did not exercise.

“We think that tissues are likely to be sending messages that help other tissues respond to exercise and to reap its benefits,” says lead author, Martin Whitham, PhD.

Exercise Corrects Some Cellular Aging. At the Mayo Clinic, a group of 72 volunteers under the age of 30 or over the age of 64 was studied to determine the effects of exercise on gene changes, cell function, and mitochondria. 

Participants were divided into four groups: Some did weight training several times a week, some did interval training three times a week on bicycles, others rode stationary bikes at a moderate pace for 30 minutes several times a week and lifted light weights on other days, and a fourth group did not exercise.

Among the under-30s, activity levels had changed 274 genes for those who did interval training—more than any other type of exercise. However, among those in the interval training older group (over-64s), nearly 400 genes had changed.

The changes specifically affected mitochondria, which are structures responsible for producing energy. The decline in cellular health of muscles normally associated with aging seemed to have been corrected with exercise, especially if the exercise was intense. The results were published in Cell Metabolism, March 2017.

Strength Training Helps Older Adults Live Longer.  In a study that shows something good is happening inside when people exercise, researchers at Penn State found that twice-weekly strength training over a period of five years resulted in lower odds of dying during the subsequent 15 years. The survey included more than 30,000 adults age 65 and older.

Those who had strength trained at least twice a week had 46 percent lower odds of death than those who did not train. They also had 41 percent lower odds of cardiac death and a 19 percent lower chance of dying from cancer.

The finding, first published in the April 2016 issue of Preventive Medicine, is strong evidence that strength training in older adults is beneficial beyond improving muscle strength and physical function.  

What This Means For You. Now you have three more reasons to exercise: It improves your body’s internal communication system, corrects some of the cellular damage associated with aging, and it might even increase your life expectancy. That’s an impressive package of benefits. 

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