Power Up

Your cells contain tiny engines that help keep you strong, slim and healthy. Here’s how to maximise their amazing potential.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Your cells contain tiny engines that help keep you strong, slim and healthy. Here’s how to maximise their amazing potential.

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Photo Hybrid Images

If you want to really make a difference in your energy levels, you need to start at the source: your mitochondria, the tiny dynamos that live in every cell of the body. These powerhouses convert food into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which becomes your body’s main source of fuel.

“Mitochondria are so important because they regulate the way the body generates energy,” explains Dr Ann Marie Chiasson, assistant director of the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in the US. And that process directly affects how quickly you burn fat, how well you recover from exercise, and your capacity to fight off disease, as well as your ability to focus.

As you approach your 40s, however, your mitochondria become more sluggish and eventually die , thus draining your energy, slowing your metabolism, and weakening your immunity. Scientists don’t yet know why this happens, but there is exciting new research that finds certain habits can prevent and even reverse the decline.

No matter what your age, fold the studybacked strategies below into your routine, starting now. The first thing you’ll notice is an increase in your mental power. A few weeks in, you’ll also see improvement in your work out endurance and strength, and you’ll probably drop a few kilos, too.

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1 Ease up your cardio

High-intensity training delivers fast results. But it also creates something called oxidative stress, says Keshav Singh, a professor of genetics, pathology and environmental health at the University of Alabama School of Medicine in the US. “Pushing yourself to your limit every time you work out will backfire, harming your mitochondria and making you feel tired and weak,” he says.

Steady cardio, on the other hand, boosts your circulation, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to your cells without causing any additional strain. The result: a two- to threefold bump in the number of mitochondria in your muscles, brain, heart, and lungs, says Dr Chiasson.

She suggests aiming for 40 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (when you’re able to speak in short sentences but not carry on a full conversation) three to five days a week. Work high-intensity sessions in on the alternate days. Balance is key, so if you exercise hard one day, rest or work out gently the following day to allow your mitochondria time to recover.

2 Use a foam roller every time you sweat

Massaging your tired limbs for just 10 minutes after a sweat session causes a spike in PGC- 1alpha , a protein that fuels mitochondrial growth in your muscles, according to a study in Science Translational Medicine.

That extra surge may speed muscle recovery and bump up your endurance capacity, explains Dr Mark Tarnopolsky, the study’s author. But skip the gentle roll-out and use a faster, more vigorous technique. “The study participants got a pretty aggressive sports massage,” Dr Tarnopolsky says. Bonus: Post-workout rolling also reduces the inflammation that causes muscle soreness.

3 Sleep more soundly

An estimated 25 million Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a disorder that occurs when you stop breathing for anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute repeatedly throughout the night. You don’t wake up, but you also never really sink into deep sleep. Besides making you feel exhausted and raising your risk of a range of health problems, like heart disease, the lack of quality zzz’s triggers oxidative stress and inflammation, which in turn damage your mitochondrial DNA, according to recent research from Italy’s University of Foggia.

If you snore (even when you’re not stuff y), Kathleen Bennett, president of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, recommends seeing a sleep doctor for a diagnosis. Treatment can be as simple as wearing a fitted mouth guard to bed. But because some women with OSA don’t snore, see your doctor if you consistently wake up in the morning feeling tired.

4 Eat healthier sugar

In the process of turning food into ATP, mitochondria create destructive by-products in the form of free radicals that can damage cells. The antioxidants and other nutrients in fruits, vegetables, and lean meats help counteract the negative effects of free radicals, research in the International Journal of Biomedical Science showed.

But sugary and processed foods cause the bad molecules to multiply, and if you eat too much junk food, “your mitochondrial function will deteriorate,” Keshav says. Opt for natural sources of sugar such as fruit or organic honey, which contain antioxidants that may help protect your cells and keep your energy high while satisfying your sweet craving.

5 Try a detox diet

Restricting your food intake to no more than 500 calories a day once or twice a week is extreme, but it can be beneficial to your mitochondria, Dr Chiasson says.

Such a diet appears to boost levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that’s critical to the growth of new mitochondria, recent research in the journal Nature Communications revealed.

Occasional fasts also make your body more sensitive to insulin and reduce inflammation, both of which help your mitochondria work harder. If you want to try it, eat healthy low-calorie fibre and proteinrich foods like chicken and veggies, and guzzle water on the days you fast.



This spice contains curcumin, a potent antioxidant that helps protect mitochondria from oxidative stress, Keshav says. Add it to smoothies, vegetable dishes, and curries.


Broccoli, brussels sprouts as well as cauliflower contain sulforaphane, an antioxidant, and coenzyme Q10, a compound that helps mitochondria convert food into ATP.


Red meat is especially high in L-carnitine and vitamins B6 and B12, all of which help your mitochondria work more efficiently. Vegetarian? Ask your doctor if you should take supplements.


These are top sources of folic acid, a nutrient that boosts mitochondrial growth and function.