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What do cold showers, intermittent fasting, freediving, saunas and supplementing with curcumin, all have to do with extending your healthspan? They are all forms of hermetic stressors, a practice that involves applying stress in measured doses for a beneficial health outcome.

Surely, you are familiar with the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” While this phrase is often used by well meaning friends to encourage you during difficult life situations such as heartbreak, divorce, and loss, resilience research now shows it isn’t always the case. Often, repeat trauma or injury that doesn’t fully heal, isn’t solid ground for growth. In terms of building both mental and physical resilience, sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you more vulnerable. 

The opposite approach to “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is that stress is something to be reduced as much as possible. But, what if they are both wrong? And what if some form of stress could improve your wellbeing and extend healthspan? Such a form exists. It’s called Hormetic stress, or Hormesis, and it could be the answer to using stress in a way that enhances longevity.

So, what is hormesis? Hormesis involves the application of low doses of mild to moderate stressors for short periods. These stressors, referred to as hormetic agents, may include heat stress, cold stress, fasting, hypoxia, intellectual tasks, exercise, and exposure to poison in small doses. The idea is that your body adapts to the stressor and becomes more resilient (1). In the long term, it makes you stronger. But only if you let the body recover properly between stressors.

Cold Stressor
Hormesis via cold-shock therapy

In this article we will focus on reaping the rewards of hormesis with exercise.

“Hormesis is a biological reaction in which low doses of an agent that could be toxic or lethal at higher doses have a beneficial effect, such as improved health, stress tolerance, muscle growth, or longevity. Sure, exercise could kill you if you went to extremes, but in controlled doses, exercise can give you hormetic benefits, such as an increased ability to fight free radicals, manage heavy loads, or be more resilient to environmental stressors.” (8)

Exercise: Helpful or Harmful for Longevity?

Some 500 years ago, Swiss physician Paracelsus expressed the basic principle of toxicology: “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” This idea is popularly condensed to: “The dose makes the poison.” It means that a substance that contains toxic properties can cause harm only if it occurs in a high enough concentration. But in the right amount it can be a potent cure.

Over-exercising or the wrong type of workout can be harmful for your healthy longevity. For example, prolonged stretches of intense physical exercise, such as Iron Man training, can induce chronic inflammation which is associated with a wide range of ailments, including premature and accelerated aging. Hence the term ‘inflammaging’, a condition which is gaining attention in longevity research. On the other hand, short bursts of intense exercise stress the body just enough to trigger an adaptive response. The exercise breaks your muscles down, but they become stronger when they recover.

The benefits of just the right form and amount of workout goes up to your head too. Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, said in her TED Talk, “Exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain today.” (2)

When referring to your healthspan, the goal is to extend the years of your life in which you are in good health, instead of just lengthening your lifespan, which simply adds years to your life. To improve your healthspan, you want to promote a healthy brain and body. Through her research, Suzuki found that exercise has protective effects on the brain. This was primarily in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, the most vulnerable areas to cognitive decline as you age. Exercise is one surefire method of biohacking your healthspan by boosting your mood, energy, attention span, and long-term memory.

What Is Exercise-Induced Hormesis?

Hormesis is sometimes referred to as voluntary stress since you are intentionally putting stress on yourself. The difference between voluntary stress and everyday physical stress is that you use voluntary stress in a controlled and measured way. In the case of exercise-induced hormesis, you choose to engage in short bursts of specific types of high-intensity exercise.

How does hormesis support longevity? Over time, your mitochondria become damaged by free radicals in your environment (3). These free radicals, from environmental toxins, chemicals in your food and water, and chronic stress, can all lead to oxidative stress that reduces cell efficiency. Hormesis pushes the body to weed out weak, dysfunctional, or mutated cells, or if the cell is in good enough condition to save,  hormesis can help to fortify cellular health. When short doses of stressors are applied, your mitochondria adapt by increasing productivity to maximize your chances of survival(4).

Exercise-Induced Hormesis
High Intensive Interval Training

What Are the Benefits of Exercise-Induced Hormesis?

The main perk about the hormetic approach to exercise? It’s short! It can take 10 to 20 minutes. No matter how busy your schedule, everyone has time for that. Plus, it’s mostly free! On top of the convenience and affordability, there are plenty of science-backed benefits to exercise-induced hormesis (6):

  • Improved physique
  • Enhanced pulmonary-cardio stamina
  • Possible prevention or delay of age-related metabolic diseases
  • Emotional balance
  • Hormonal regulation
  • Maintenance of cognitive function

Using exercise strategically for its hormetic effects is a quick and effective way to impact your healthspan positively.

How Can You Induce Hormesis Through Exercise?

To enjoy the longevity-supporting hormetic effects of exercise, you must choose a physical activity that provides brief spurts of intense training. Five qualities for physical activities that support your healthspan are: brief, intense, infrequent, safe, and purposeful. What type of exercise fulfills these qualities? High-intensity interval training!

It is recognized that high-intensity interval training, also known as HIIT, has a particularly strong hormetic effect on cell mitochondria. They become more efficient in dealing with the stress, which increases your energy production and slows down aging at the cellular level.

Hormesis
HIIT

Some examples of exercises ideal for HIIT are:

  • Tabata
  • Bodyweight exercises
  • Crossfit
  • Powerlifting
  • Resistance machines
  • Weight training

So, how does HIIT work? You exercise in short bursts at a high intensity with active rest periods between each set. During your active rest period, you continue moving your body at a low intensity. Here’s a sample beginner HIIT workout:

  • Warm-up for 2 minutes.
  • Sprint for 10 seconds.
  • Walk for 20 seconds.
  • Repeat the cycle two more times.

You’ll want to pick the work/rest ratio that best suits your abilities. Above, we used a 1:2 ratio, but if this pace is too challenging, reduce your ratio to 1:3 or 1:4. For example, sprint for 10 seconds, then walk for 30 or 40 seconds. The key is to put all of your efforts into your work period, whether it be sprinting, lifting weights, or jumping on a trampoline.

Summary

Yes, exercise breaks down your muscles. But it builds them back up even stronger and more resilient than before. In small doses. Pick a high-intensity workout and do it in short bursts with rest in between each set. Enjoy the healthspan boosting benefits of exercise-induced hormesis…

References
  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2248601/#:~:text=Hormesis%20is%20a%20term%20used,dose%20 inhibitory%20or%20toxic%20effect
  2. https://www.ted.com/talks/wendy_suzuki_the_brain_changing_benefits_of_exercise/up-next?language=en
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4145906/#:~:text=Oxidative%20stress%20is%20characterized%20by,homeostasis%20and%20mitochondrial%20defense%20systems
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2836144/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2836153/#:~:text=The%20evidence%20for%20this%20is%20the%20well%20demonstrated%20health%20benefits,mental%2C%20hormonal%20and%20emotional%20functionality
  6. Greenfield, Ben. Boundless. Victory Belt Publishing, 2020.