CARVILLE: Staying strong |

CARVILLE: Staying strong

Phil Carville
Fitness Columnist

I get to see folks of all ages, in all sorts of physical condition, each day. Some are young and strong. Others are older and weaker. But why are the young strong and the old weak? Can we slow the aging process?


Aging starts on the outside with thinning hair, sagging skin, loss of muscle tone and endurance. But on the inside, aging extends all the way down to the cellular level. Older muscles do not regenerate easily and become weaker as their mitochondria diminish in vigor and number. But this can be ameliorated.


Inside almost every cell in your body there are mitochondria – little organelles that drive cellular respiration – which is how you stay alive. These little guys provide the energy for muscle function via a marvelous process called the Krebs Cycle.

We need the Krebs Cycle energy to enable growth, repair tissues, to maintain body heat and to fuel physical activity. How does that happen?


Mitochondria in your cells take in foods rich in carbohydrate, protein and fat. They convert those nutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is a powerhouse molecule of “chemical energy” – stored in the cell just waiting to be transformed into ‘kinetic energy” (movement and heat).

Some cells, like neurotransmitters, don’t need a lot of mitochondria because they primarily just transmit electrical signals. However, muscle cells need thousands of mitochondria to create millions of ATP molecules so your muscles can contract – either to blink your eye or lift a 50-pound dumbbell.


Exercise creates more mitochondria in your cells. A study in the publication, Cell Metabolism, shows certain workouts may undo some of what aging has done to reduce our mitochondria.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic divided people of all ages, genders and physical conditions into groups, established baselines like aerobic fitness, blood-sugar levels, et cetera including gene activity and mitochondrial health. Their goal was to understand how exercise influenced health at the cellular level.


Some did vigorous weight training several times a week; some did brief interval training three times a week on stationary bicycles (pedaling hard for four minutes, resting for three and then repeating that sequence three more times); some rode stationary bikes at a moderate pace for 30 minutes a few times a week and lifted weights lightly on other days.

After 12-weeks, the baseline tests were repeated and, in general, everyone who exercised experienced improvements in fitness. As expected, the gains in muscle mass and strength were greater for those who exercised only with weights, while interval training had the strongest influence on endurance.


But not expected, for younger subjects who went through interval training, the activity levels had changed in 274 genes, compared with 170 genes for those who exercised more moderately and 74 for the weight lifters.

Among the older cohort, almost 400 genes were working differently now, compared with 33 for the weight lifters and only 19 for the moderate exercisers.

Exercise improved the quantity and ability of mitochondria to produce energy for muscle cells; the subjects who did the interval workouts showed increases in the number and health of their mitochondria — an impact that was particularly pronounced among the older cyclists.


The researchers concluded that decline in the cellular health of muscles associated with aging was “corrected” with exercise. In fact, older people’s cells responded in some ways more robustly to intense exercise than the cells of the young did — suggesting that it is never too late to benefit from exercise.

You can change your future! As Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

P.S.: I am thinking of putting together an anti-aging senior exercise program. For those who are interested, shoot me an email.

Phil Carville is a co-owner of the South Yuba Club. He is happy to answer questions. You can contact him at

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