Friday, December 2, 2016

Exercise and Cellular Metabolism

Exercise is one of the essential keys to a healthy life. It is critically important for virtually every facet of health. Almost any disease or disorder you can name has at least a dozen studies that show the health benefits of regular exercise. It’s not always exactly clear why or by what mechanism exercising helps, but the benefits are pretty clear.

An article in Nature takes a look at exercise and some research that sheds light on why exercise is so helpful. This research suggests that exercise is key to the proper and healthy functioning of lysosomes in our body.

So what are lysosomes and why do they matter?


Our cells aren’t perfect. From time to time, they make mistakes while doing their work building proteins. Furthermore, in the course of normal cellular operation, there are waste products that need to be removed. The food you eat and medicines you take all get metabolized and some waste is generated in the process.

The human body is a miracle of efficiency and likes to reuse and recycle any useful ingredients it can use. Lysosomes are the part of each cell that digests (i.e. breaks apart) this cellular waste into its constituent parts allowing these valuable components to be reused. Lysosomes are the parts of the cell that usually perform this critical recycling by gathering up and digesting misshapen proteins, other dying or dead cells, foreign bacteria, and basically anything else that could be useful. This is very efficient for the body because it saves immensely on energy used to dispose of the cellular “garbage” and requires a much lower intake of the raw materials your cells need.

Lysosomes are clearly essential for our well being and exercise appears to be an important factor in boosting the activity of these lysosomes inside our cells. So exercise helps our cells to literally “take out the trash” by clearing away and reusing their cellular debris. By boosting the activity of lysosomes, exercise can make cells function better overall and even provide them with new raw materials.


Essentially, the researchers tagged the outer membrane of lysosomes with a dye the allowed them to see it expand to engulf the cellular garbage - the first step in recycling valuable components back into the building blocks that cells can reuse. By watching the lysosomes in this way, they can determine what effects exercise causes to lysosomal activity.
The researchers used rats that they specifically bred so that lysosomes maintained a constant level of activity. Usually, when a rat is stressed either through diet or exercise, it became clear that the cells of these rats were functioning poorly. The rats exhibited decreased endurance and poor metabolism of glucose. These rats, when fed a poor diet, quickly developed diabetes.

However, in the unmodified (i.e. normal) rats, increasing exercise caused an increase in the activity of lysosomes. This, in turn, led to cells being better able to function and the rats actually reversed the symptoms of dietary induced diabetes, even on the same diet that caused their diabetes.

Our body uses glucose in our blood as it’s first choice for energy, however, once we burn through our stores of glucose in our blood (and glycogen in the liver), we switch to burning fat and protein for energy instead. This is where lysosomes are critical because one of the first sources for protein energy comes from lysosomes breaking down the errant proteins and other things rounded up inside the cells as “garbage”. Once these proteins are broken down, they can be reassembled by the cells to make new proteins or converted into energy for your muscles and brain.

Exercise appears to send a signal to the lysosomes that your body needs energy. It’s similar in nature to the “starvation response”, where your body doesn’t have access to immediate food, so you start switching from using glucose as fuel for cells to using fat and protein. This switch appears to trigger the lysosomes to work harder. It makes sense, since both exercise and periods of time without food essentially both lead to you depleting the glucose available to your cells. Lysosomes help to jumpstart this process.

This new research is starting to shed some light onto one reason why exercise is so valuable for health. We’ve all heard about the health benefits of exercise, and now we can see how our lysosomes react and help clean up our cells in the process.

For another look at the value of exercise you may want to have a look at our recent post on the biggest single thing you can do to improve your health.



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