How exercise affects you on a cellular level

By Aisha Branch, April 21, 2022

We all know exercise is good for our overall health. Whether we’re trying to drop pounds, gain muscle, or maintain our weight—exercise can benefit almost everyone. Over time, solid routines can lead to healthy results, like weight loss or adding overall strength. But did you know that routine exercise can also be a key factor in longevity?

When we exercise, our cells go through a rejuvenation process. Exercising helps to repair damaged cells and tissue, create energy, and detox our body. So, what exactly is it repairing, and why is it considered a key to longevity? For that, we need to take a deeper look at how exercise affects our bodies on a cellular level.

Telomeres and aging

Telomeres and aging go hand-in-hand. Telomeres are protective structures that stabilize our chromosomes. Consisting of repetitive DNA sequences, telomeres protect the ends of our chromosomes by forming a cap—much like the plastic tip on the ends of our shoelaces—that keeps chromosomes from decaying or sticking to other chromosomes. That protection ensures that our chromosomes will replicate properly during cell division.

Over time, each act of cell division shortens the telomere and shrinks its protective cap. Through this process, telomere length can also provide an estimate of lifespan, as more cell divisions occur the longer you live1.  

There are ways to inhibit the shortening of telomeres like diet, exercise, and meditation. You can also reverse some of this process through exercise. Different studies have shown that telomeres are longer in people who exercise at a moderate level. In fact, a study of older adults who previously had a sedentary lifestyle saw an increased length in telomeres the more they exercised2

It has been hypothesized that exercise can positively impact the length of telomeres and cell division, as a decrease in overall damage reduces the number of cell divisions necessary to replace lost cells. In addition, exercise could aid in telomerase activity—the enzyme responsible for maintenance of the length of telomeres—making it a key to longevity.

Exercise to boost mitochondrial function

Mitochondria is known as “the powerhouse of the cell,” with its primary function being to convert oxygen and nutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—or energy—powering the cell’s biochemical reactions.

Mitochondria not only supplies the cells with energy, but also helps the immune system detect pathogens and defects in the cells. If the body detects DNA damage that could lead to illness or cancer, mitochondria initiates a process called apoptosis which leads to the death of an unhealthy cell and its elimination from the body.

The more we exercise, the more mitochondria our bodies produce. This is because when we exercise, we’re supplying extra oxygen to the body and oxygen is vital to producing mitochondria. It is hard to detect the degree to which exercise will increase mitochondria production, as a test has not yet been developed, but many studies have found that exercise is a proven method to ignite mitochondria production, a key to longevity and overall vitality3.

Improved macrophage response

Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that surrounds and kills microorganisms, removes dead cells, and stimulates the action of other immune system cells. They play a role in muscle repair and cell regeneration. Without getting too scientific, exercise can greatly affect our body’s immune system by promoting healthy cell function and macrophage response. This helps protect us from illnesses, heal our muscles and promote accelerated healing from injury. The good news? Any physical activity aids in boosting our immune system—yet another reason to make sure we are moving our bodies at different intensities for at least 30 minutes a day.

Exercises that are key to longevity

Studies have shown that HIIT, Tabata, cellular burst workouts, and endurance training exercises have been the most effective at stimulating cell rejuvenation, boosting mitochondria, removing toxins, improving cognitive function, reducing inflammation, and enhancing sleep. These workouts have been proven to put positive stress on the body, activate our longevity genes, repair our bodies, and rid our system of dead cells.

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  1. 1. Kim et al, Habitual physical exercise has beneficial effects on telomere length in postmenopausal women. Menopause 2012, 19:1109; Du et al, Physical activity, sedentary behavior, and leukocyte telomere length in women. Am. J. Epidemiol 2012, 175:414.
  2. 2. Sjogren et al, Br J Sports Med 2014 48:1407.
  3. 3.

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