Mayo Clinic Study Identifies How Exercise Staves Off Old Age

Aerobic interval training reverses age-related decline on a mitochondrial level.

Posted Mar 08, 2017

Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock
Source: Sander van der Werf/Shutterstock

Mayo Clinic scientists may have just discovered the fountain of youth. And this magic elixir doesn’t come in the form of a pill, powder, or hyperbaric oxygen chamber. The team of researchers found that various types of exercise—but high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in particular—appear to slow down aging on a cellular level. These findings were published March 7 in the journal Cell Metabolism.

High-intensity interval training or “sprints” can be done on any type of aerobic equipment or outside. HIIT involves short bursts of intense aerobic activity within any longer duration of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

Exercise physiologists have long suspected that many of the mysterious benefits of aerobic exercise occur at the cellular level. However, until now, very little was known about what specific types of physical activity—or intensities of aerobic exercise—most effectively boost cells to rebuild their inner workings and organelles that deteriorate as we age. The newfound power of aerobic exercise to transform key organelles could explain why MVPA has so many broad sweeping health benefits.

"These things we are seeing cannot be done by any medicine." — Sreekumaran Nair, M.D. (Mayo Clinic)

In a recent statement to Cell Press, Senior author, Sreekumaran Nair, echoed the prescriptive wisdom of Hippocrates from millennia ago. Around 400 BC, Hippocrates said, “Walking is the best medicine.” This week, Dr. Nair said:

"Based on everything we know, there's no substitute for these exercise programs when it comes to delaying the aging process. These things we are seeing cannot be done by any medicine. . . . exercise is critically important to prevent or delay aging. There's no substitute for that."

As you get older, the ability of your cells' mitochondria to produce energy slowly decreases. Nair and his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic found that immediately after a vigorous aerobic workout, molecular changes occur that cause cells to pump up their energy-producing mitochondria and protein-building ribosomes. 

The most earth shattering aspect of the latest Mayo Clinic findings are that, in some cases, the high-intensity cycling regimen used in this study seemed to reverse the age-related decline in mitochondrial function and proteins necessary for muscle building and energy production. The researchers also observed a robust increase in mitochondrial protein synthesis. In their conclusion, the researchers hypothesize:

"If exercise restores or prevents deterioration of mitochondria and ribosomes in muscle cells, there's a good chance it does so in other tissues, too. Understanding the pathways that exercise uses to work its magic may make aging more targetable.”

In future studies, Nair and his team will investigate how exercise benefits different tissues throughout the body. They're also fine-tuning prescriptive advice for clinicians that will help tailor targeted interventions to improve overall well-being and reverse age-related decline. In the meantime, the Mayo Clinic researchers emphasize that based on their research, "Vigorous exercise remains the most effective way to bolster health."

*As always, please consult with your primary health care provider and take a cardio stress test before beginning any type of new exercise routine—especially one that involves vigorous, high-intensity aerobic interval training.


Matthew M. Robinson, Surendra Dasari, Adam R. Konopka, Matthew L. Johnson, S. Manjunatha, Raul Ruiz Esponda, Rickey E. Carter, Ian R. Lanza, K. Sreekumaran Nair. Enhanced Protein Translation Underlies Improved Metabolic and Physical Adaptations to Different Exercise Training Modes in Young and Old Humans. Cell Metabolism, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2017.02.009