By Dr. Mercola
Having been an avid exerciser for nearly five decades, there's no doubt in my mind that a comprehensive fitness routine is essential for optimal health. Health and fitness is an ongoing, lifelong journey, though. It's important to take stock of where you are and to keep pushing yourself to new heights. At the same time, you need to listen to your body and be willing to fine-tune or completely alter your workout routine as your circumstances change.
As an example, for nearly 40 years my primary exercise was long-distance running, but as I got older, I realized there were healthier and far more effective forms of exercise. Once I switched from running to peak fitness high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training, my fitness soared and my physique changed rather dramatically for the better.
A significant piece of the puzzle relates to how HIIT improves your mitochondria, and generates more of them. Mitochondria are tiny organelles found in nearly all of your cells, responsible for production of energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The more mitochondria you have and the healthier they are, the more energy your body can generate and the lower your risk of chronic diseases like arthritis, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's.
Two Key Strategies to Help Your Fitness Soar in 2017
I still believe HIIT is the most effective and efficient way to reach your fitness goals, but I've further fine-tuned my approach and now use an even shorter routine that I believe is just as effective while being far safer, especially if you're older or just starting out. Below, I'll discuss this new technique, which I refer to as "the nitric oxide dump."
The scientific literature also clearly shows that sitting for extended periods is a major, independent risk factor for chronic disease, even if you exercise regularly, so daily non-exercise movement is likely one of the most important fitness strategies for many — especially if you're currently not exercising on a regular basis.
The reason for this is because sitting blocks a number of insulin-mediated systems, including muscular and cellular pathways that process blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol. Standing up — bearing your own body weight on your legs — activates all of these systems at the molecular level. I'll review this below as well.
Exercise Benefits Both Your Body and Your Brain
A number of biological effects occur when you exercise. This includes changes in your muscles, lungs, heart, joints and bones, all of which help keep your body as youthful as possible. Weight-bearing exercise, for example, is one of the most effective remedies against osteoporosis, which is why strength training is so important for the elderly.
Exercise also helps keep your brain in good working order. There are in fact intriguing links between muscle growth and brain regeneration, also known as neurogenesis, which helps slow down or ward off cognitive loss. Mechanisms by which exercise produces beneficial changes in your brain include:
✓ Decreasing bone-morphogenetic protein (BMP) and increasing noggin. BMP reduces neurogenesis and Noggin is a BMP antagonist. By reducing the detrimental effects of BMP while boosting the more beneficial Noggin, your brain is able to retain its agility3,4
✓ Reducing plaque formation: By altering the way damaging proteins reside inside your brain, exercise may help slow the development of Alzheimer's disease5
✓ Triggering genetic changes, many of which help protect against brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's
✓ Triggering release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and GABA. Some of these are well-known for their role in mood control and have mood boosting effects
✓ Activating PGC1 alpha. This is the stimulus to increase mitochondrial biogenesis and increase the number and quality of these vital energy producing parts of your cell
Non-Exercise Movement Is Foundational for Optimal Health
All of that said, before you even begin to consider putting together a regular exercise program, take stock of how much you move throughout each day. Do you sit down during work and commuting and then spend most of the evening on the couch? More than 10,000 studies now show sitting takes a significant toll on your health, even if you exercise regularly.
The evidence is quite clear on this: An hour or two of exercise each week simply isn't enough to outweigh the damage incurred by sitting down for 10 hours or more each day. If you think about it, the reason we need exercise at all is to compensate for our modern lifestyles, where inactivity is the norm. Our ancestors didn't have to "exercise" because they rarely sat down. They moved all day long, and research shows this near-continuous movement is absolutely key for biological functioning.
So, non-exercise movement is now recognized as a foundational piece for optimal health — even more so than a regimented fitness routine. Ideally, you'd do them both, but if you're currently sedentary, I recommend you simply start by sitting less. A fitness tracker can be a helpful tool. I recommend getting at least 7,000 to 10,000 steps each day, and limit sitting to less than three hours. I personally sit less than 30 minutes most days and walk an average of 15,000 steps a day.
Recent research6 into the effects of exercise on diabetes in particular really stresses the importance of increasing the FREQUENCY of movement. Research also shows that chronic sitting is particularly hazardous for diabetics.
One such study7 found that taking a 10-minute walk after each meal provided greater blood sugar control in diabetics than 30 minutes of exercise done once a day, lowering post-meal blood sugar levels by 22 percent. So, merely increasing the frequency of your movement is a simple way to maximize the benefits you get from the time spent.
Super-Simple Way to Boost Your Health in Less Than 10 Minutes a Day
As mentioned, while I still endorse HIIT, I believe I've learned an even easier way to reap most if not all of the same benefits of a more elaborate HIIT protocol with just four simple movements — no weights or equipment required. Best of all, it only requires three minutes of your time, twice or three times a day, with at least two hours between sessions.
This is the nitric oxide (NO) dump exercise developed by Dr. Zach Bush. NO is an extremely important part of biochemical regulation, and understanding and controlling its formation has the potential for profound influences on your health. Most notably, NO:
- Protects your heart by relaxing your blood vessels and lowering your blood pressure
- Stimulates your brain
- Kills bacteria and defends against tumor cells
- Helps maintain homeostasis in your body
For a demonstration, see the video above. If you have previously watched this video, please review it again as I recently updated it to correct a couple of errors and omissions that sneaked into my previous video. A key component I forgot in my earlier video is to make sure you're breathing through your nose and not your mouth. Your nose actually regulates more than 30 physical processes, including the release of NO, and of course serves to filter the air you breathe.
Compared to a regular HIIT protocol, the NO dump exercise is a far gentler strategy that can be done by just about anyone, regardless of your current level of fitness or age. You'd be hard-pressed to injure yourself doing this. Since you're just using your body to perform simple knee bends and arm lifts, the exercise is more or less automatically customized to your current level of ability.
Yet, despite its simplicity, I'm convinced you'll still obtain most of the benefits you get from HIIT. While I demonstrate 20 reps in the above video, it is best to start at 10 reps and gradually work your way up to 20. Remember, don't do this more than every two hours, as it takes that long for the NO to be generated from eNOS (endothelial nitric oxide synthase).
Nutrition Accounts for 80 Percent of Your Healthy Lifestyle Benefits
If you're staying active and exercising regularly but still struggle with weight or health issues, the culprit is probably your diet. Contrary to popular belief, you simply cannot out-exercise your mouth. In fact, your diet may account for as much as 80 percent of the benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle, with exercise accounting for the remaining 20 percent. It's an important 20 percent, no doubt, but nutrition lays the groundwork upon which everything else is built.
If I were to summarize healthy eating in its most basic form, I would say it's about eating real food. Doing so will help you avoid the most serious pitfalls. However, the devil is in the details, and if you're serious about optimizing your health, you'd be wise to take the time to understand some of the finer details of what makes for a healthy diet. To help you with this, I've created a detailed and comprehensive nutrition plan.
One of the most important facets of healthy eating is to make sure you nourish and support your mitochondria, which is the main topic of my best-selling book, "Fat for Fuel," which was released May 16. In it, I explain the metabolic advantages you gain once your body regains the ability to burn fat for fuel. Not only is efficient fat burning imperative for weight loss, it's also a cornerstone of optimal health in general.
Metabolic Mitochondrial Therapy — The Answer to Many Health Crises
A foundational cause of most degenerative diseases is the fact that your mitochondria are not receiving sufficient amounts of proper fuel. Deterioration and malfunction of your mitochondria are the inevitable results when you feed your body inappropriate fuel. In a nutshell, a healthy diet will support mitochondrial function and prevent dysfunction, and having the metabolic flexibility to burn fat is the key that makes everything work optimally.
A key reason why so many are struggling with obesity and ill health is because they eat mostly processed food and burn carbohydrates as their primary fuel. Contrary to the health claims made for whole grains and other sugary foods, a high-carb diet has the devastating effect of actually shutting down your body's ability to burn fat. This is why it can seem nearly impossible to lose weight and keep it off.
In addition to that, when your body burns primarily carbs for fuel, excessive reactive oxygen species and secondary free radicals are generated. This leads to damage of your cellular mitochondrial membranes and DNA, which in turn promotes degenerative disease. The good news is the answer is simpler than you might think. By correcting the ratios of the three main nutrient groups — carbohydrates, fats and protein — your body will in short order be able to burn fat for fuel again.
The program I developed, detailed in "Fat for Fuel," is called metabolic mitochondrial therapy (MMT). It is called MMT because I review a variety of other strategies to improve your mitochondria other than diet, such as cold thermogenesis, photobiology, detox, exercise and the importance of reducing your exposure to electromagnetic fields.
MMT Diet Basics
Initially, this program calls for restricting net carbohydrates (total carbs minus fiber) to 20 to 50 grams per day, until you start burning fat for fuel. To replace the lost carbs, you increase healthy fats, so that you're getting anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of your daily calories from fat.
Examples of high-quality healthy fats include avocados, coconut oil, animal-based omega 3 from fatty fish like sardines and anchovies, raw nuts like macadamia and pecans, olives, MCT oil, ghee, raw cacao butter and organic pastured egg yolks, just to name a few.
Fats to avoid include trans fats and highly refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils.8 The former acts as a pro-oxidant; the latter are high in damaged omega-6, which cannot be burned for fuel but end up being incorporated into cellular and mitochondrial membranes instead, where they damage your metabolic machinery. Vegetable oils also produce toxic oxidation products like cyclic aldehydes when heated.
Raising the amount of fat and decreasing net carbs is what pushes your body into burning fat for fuel. Keep in mind that eating high amounts of BOTH fat and net carbs will NOT allow your body to make this shift, as your body will use whatever sugar is available first. The MMT diet also calls for limiting protein to one-half gram of protein per pound (1 gram per kilo) of lean body mass. This is to avoid activating the mTOR pathway, which plays an important role in aging and cancer.
To make sure you're getting these ratios right, I recommend using a nutrient tracker. The Mercola version of chronometer, which is free, is preset for nutritional ketosis. Last but certainly not least, my book explains the necessity for feast-famine cycling. Many erroneously recommend continuous ketosis, but this can actually have counterproductive side effects.
I firmly believe it's not optimally healthy in the long run, as long-term suppression of insulin can result in your liver creating more glucose to make up for the perceived deficit. The ketogenic cycling is implemented once you're out of the initial stage and your body has regained the ability to burn fat. At that point, you begin cycling in and out of nutritional ketosis by upping your carb and protein intake once or twice a week.
Your Body Was Built to Move
While diet accounts for a majority of the health benefits you get from a healthy lifestyle, exercise is the ultimate "leveraging agent" that maximizes all those benefits. The earlier you begin and the more consistent you are, the greater your long-term rewards, but it's never too late to start. Even seniors can improve their physical function, cognitive agility and quality of life by starting an appropriate exercise program.
In this article, I've focused on two fitness keys — a safe and super-simple bodyweight exercise that boosts NO production and mimics the health benefits of HIIT in a minimal amount of time, and non-exercise movement. If you're currently doing nothing, focusing on these two could go a long way toward improving your health and fitness, especially if you combine them with the nutritional changes discussed above.
At bare minimum, avoid sitting as much as possible, and make it a point to walk more every day. This is just as important for optimal health as having a regular fitness regimen. Once you've incorporated daily non-exercise movement and the nitric oxide dump, chances are you'll start feeling much better and be ready for a more comprehensive program — or maybe you're there already.
If so, head over to my fitness plan. Depending on your current fitness level, you can choose to follow the beginner, intermediate or advanced level, each of which includes Peak interval training, strength training and functional exercises to bring your fitness to new heights.