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Lactic Acid is Good for You: Why Everyone with a Healthy Heart Should Do Interval Exercise

Accumulating lactic acid in your muscles makes you a better athlete, helps to prevent diseases and may even prolong your life. Athletes use a form of interval training to make themselves faster and stronger, and everyone with a healthy heart can benefit from this technique. Interval training means to exercise so vigorously that you get short of breath, slow down and when you recover your breath, you exercise intensely enough to become short of breath again. Then you alternate intense intervals and recovery until your legs start to feel heavy or hurt, and then stop the workout for the day. For example, warm up by running very slowly for five to 10 minutes, and then run a little faster until you become short of breath, slow down until you recover your breath and repeat until your legs start to feel heavy or hurt.

Intervals to Make You a Better Athlete
You cannot enlarge a muscle and make it stronger unless you damage it with vigorous exercise. When it heals, it is larger and stronger. You cannot improve your ability to take in and use oxygen unless you exercise vigorously enough to become short of breath. Interval training allows you to exercise more intensely than continuous training and therefore give you a stronger training effect by causing more muscle fiber damage and greater oxygen debts.

Intervals to Prevent Disease and Prolong Your Life
A regular exercise program helps to prevent diabetes, heart attacks, and cancers. Interval training may be even more effective in preventing heart attacks and cancers because it helps to lower high blood sugar more effectively than continuous training by making cells far more sensitive to insulin (Int J Sports Med, published online November 6, 2014). Vigorous exercise increases the number, size and efficiency of mitochondria in your muscle cells. All of the cells in your body (except mature red blood cells) have anywhere from a few to thousands of organelles, called mitochondria, that turn the food that you eat into energy. Muscle cells need a lot of energy so they have lots of mitochondria. Nerves don't need a lot of energy to transmit messages so they need only a few mitochondria. When you exercise so intensely that you can't get all the oxygen you need and you become short of breath, you increase the number, size and efficiency of mitochondria in cells everywhere in your body. Accumulating evidence shows that this helps to prevent overweight, diabetes, heart attacks and certain cancers. It helps to explain why exercise increases memory and nerve function. Exercise also helps to reduce the loss of mitochondria in cells that occurs naturally with aging (Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, April, 2007). See More Mitochondria for Better Athletes

How Accumulating Lactic Acid Helps to Prevent Disease and Prolong Life
Interval training has been used in all endurance sports since the 1920’s. George Brooks of the University of California at Berkeley has shown why interval training makes you a better athlete (American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, June 2006). A major fuel for your muscles during exercise is the sugar, glucose. In a series of chemical reactions, glucose is broken down step by step, with each step releasing energy. When enough oxygen is available, the glucose releases all of its energy until only carbon dioxide and water remain; these are blown off through your lungs. However, if you exercise so intensely that you can't get all the oxygen you need, the chemical reactions stop at lactic acid which accumulates in the muscles and spills over into the bloodstream. Lactic acid makes muscles acidic and causes a burning feeling that forces you to slow down. Thus lactic acid helps to prevent severe muscle damage by slowing you down when you run low on oxygen.

When you slow down after each intense interval, you catch up on your oxygen debt, and your body uses lactic acid as its most efficient source of energy for muscles. Muscles require less oxygen to turn lactic acid into energy. So when your muscles produce lots of lactic acid, they can use this chemical for energy. This allows you to move faster and stronger for longer periods of time (Sports Medicine, Volume 36, 2006). Anything that helps muscles to break down lactic acid faster will make you a better athlete because it will increase your endurance and allow you to move faster when you are tired (Fed. Proc, 45: 2924-2929, 1986). Lactic acid can also be used by your liver to make even more sugar to feed your muscles during exercise.

How to Do Interval Training
Interval training makes you a much better athlete because it teaches your muscles and liver to use lactate for energy much faster than just doing continuous training (Am. J. Physiol, 244: E83-E92, 1983). The faster you can use up lactic acid,
• the more quickly you relieve the acid burning in muscles that slows you down, and
• the faster you can go because lactate requires less oxygen than even sugar does.

Intense exercise can cause heart attacks in people who have blocked arteries, so before you start, check with your doctor. Then pick any sport that you like. It can be riding a road bicycle or stationary bicycle, walking, jogging, dancing or any other type of continuous exercise.

Background Phase: If you have not been exercising regularly, spend several weeks exercising at a casual pace. Try to exercise every day and exercise until your legs start to feel heavy or hurt and stop. You may go for five minutes on one day, and have to take the next day off because your legs feel sore. You may have a progression of five minutes on one day, then zero on the next day, then 10 minutes, then three minutes. Gradually you should be able to work up to being able to exercise casually for 30 minutes every day and not feel sore. Then you should be able to start training.

Interval Training Phase: Warm up for five to 10 minutes and then gradually pick up the pace. As soon as your legs start to feel heavy or you start to become short of breath, slow down until your legs and breathing recover. Then pick up the pace again and slow down as soon as your legs start to burn or feel heavy or you start to breathe hard. As a general rule, most casual exercisers are better off keeping their intense intervals to less than 30 seconds because they do not suffer much oxygen deprivation to build up a lot of lactic acid over that short a time and therefore are reducing stresses on their bodies. Alternate picking up the pace and slowing down until your legs start to feel heavy or hurt and then you are through for the day. Be patient with your progress and realize that pushing through pain and discomfort can injure you. An injury will usually prevent you from being able to exercise at all. More at Interval Training for Sports

Caution: people with blocked arteries leading to the heart can get a heart attack from intense exercise. Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program or making a sudden change in the intensity of your program.

Checked 9/2/17

October 18th, 2015
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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