Exciting new research has proven the existence of a hormone that seems to increase during exercise and does amazing things for our health and metabolism.
Called the "exercise hormone," this muscle hormone was discovered by scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Because it's a chemical messenger it was named irisin after a messenger goddess.
Although its existence has been hotly debated in recent years, Harvard scientists studying irisin announced not long ago that the "data provided unequivocally demonstrates that human irisin exists".
Irisin, normally present as part of a larger protein in the muscle cell's outer membrane, lies dormant and inactive until released. Exercise and other factors help split this protein, releasing irisin in the process.
So, now we know that irisin exists and we also know that when we exercise our body makes more of it.
Why is this important? What does this hormone act on once we start pumping blood and our heart rate goes up?
It seems that irisin has the unique ability to turn white fat into brown fat. White fat stores energy (calories) while brown fat is better for us because it's more involved in burning energy (increases our metabolism) rather than storing it.
Brown fat intrigues scientists because it physically resembles muscle more than fat and plays a major role in maintaining normal weight. It also acts and behaves more like muscle than fat, which likely explains its fat-burning capabilities. Slender people have more brown fat than obese people.
Younger people have more brown fat than seniors and those with normal blood sugar levels enjoy the benefits of more brown fat than people with high blood sugar.
Obesity, a disorder of fat accumulation, is a real problem in the world today. It is the result of over-eating and under-exercising. Increased irisin levels help to increase glucose tolerance and reduce insulin resistance, suggesting it may be a real breakthrough in treating diabetes.
But, the benefits of this new, exciting "exercise" hormone don't stop there. Irisin offers other valuable benefits, such as triggering the growth of new brain neurons and activating genes involved in memory retention and learning. It also acts directly on bone, promoting its formation by increasing bone mineral density which in turn helps with osteoporosis.
All these things are valuable and contribute to our overall health. But another, super exciting discovery swirling around irisin is how it affects our telomeres. It seems that high irisin levels are directly associated with lengthening our telomeres.
The longer our telomeres, (telomere shortening is a genetic marker of ageing) the younger and healthier our body. This translates to us being less prone to age-related illnesses and diseases such as cancer, dementia and heart disease.
With so much controversy surrounding the discovery of irisin, it will be a while before the whole scientific community comes on board to discover how to harness the power of this unique hormone. However, that doesn't mean we have to put our health on hold until then.
If we want to enjoy the benefits of irisin – feeling more fabulous and younger than we currently do, we must allow this hormone to work its magic now.
Since we already know that exercise increases the amount of irisin in our bodies, exercising is the perfect place to start. It is, without doubt, the best way to boost our irisin levels. However, not all exercise is created equal.
Not surprisingly, a recent scientific discovery published in 2014, found that high-intensity exercise increases irisin levels better than low-intensity exercise which means it must challenge the body to trigger its release.
Researchers have also discovered that rats that swam daily but were fed a high-fat diet still lost weight and suspect it is due to irisin. Cold temperatures are another factor. It seems that the shivering we do when exposed to chilly temperatures increases irisin, even rivaling the results of those who exercised regularly.
Bottom line is this: Irisin is a health-boosting, fat-burning, sensitising hormone empowered to provide us with many health benefits. It reduces body weight, boosts our energy expenditure, and improves diet-induced insulin resistance.
So, what are you waiting for? Chill down your house, head to the gym and enjoy your healthy fats. Your health, your weight and your longevity will thank you for it.
■ Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.