His interest in physical fitness led Mark Hom, H’92, to write a book that focuses on the crucial role mitochondria play in exercise, disease prevention and nutrition. Here he’s pictured breaking away on a Richmond Area Bicycling Association club ride. Photo by Allan Cooper
As he approached his 50th birthday, Mark Hom, H’92, made a pact with his wife that they would try to stay in great shape as they got older. They both took up cycling and, after struggling to pedal only a few miles when they first began, they now log thousands of miles on their bikes each year. His interest in physical fitness, and in cycling specifically, led him to write a book on the subject. “The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance and Endurance” focuses on the crucial role mitochondria play in exercise, disease prevention and nutrition.
In a recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch by Louis Llovio, Hom described how mitochondria – the power plants of our cells – convert food and body fat into the energy we need to exercise. Mitochondria multiply in response to intense exercise and diminish from lack of activity. Because their role in fitness and health is so central, it’s important to take care of your mitochondria to ensure top physical performance and to prevent the diseases of the modern age such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome.
“My analogy is that since mitochondria are inside your body and inside your cells, it is up to you to be a good shepherd to your mitochondrial flock by feeding them, making them strong and protecting them.” That translates into supplying them with good nutrition and exercising with intensity, while avoiding toxins that might weaken them.
When he began writing the book, Hom, an assistant professor of radiology at the School of Medicine, started thinking about examples to demonstrate the importance of mitochondria’s role in fitness. As a cyclist, his thoughts quickly turned to one of the sport’s legends: Greg LeMond. LeMond. The two-time World Champion and three-time Tour de France winner obviously had superior mitochondria to power those wins but also suffered a near-fatal hunting accident in 1987 that knocked him out of cycling at the peak of his career.
After he recovered from his wounds, LeMond rebuilt his fitness to win again, but later suffered from muscle weakness and a lack of endurance. A muscle biopsy revealed the hallmark ragged red fibers of mitochondrial myopathy.
Mark Hom, H’92
Hom, familiar with LeMond’s story, says this diagnosis was a seminal event in mitochondrial disease awareness. The lead shotgun pellets from the accident leaked toxins into LeMond’s body, damaging his mitochondria and prolonging his recovery time. Diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy, LeMond was forced to retire from bike racing in 1994 when he still should have been in his prime years.
Because LeMond’s story presents such a poignant example of the connection between mitochondria and fitness, Hom decided on a whim to send an early draft of his book to the famous cyclist.
To his surprise, LeMond responded with a long email and agreed to co-author the book. LeMond, who always sought coaches knowledgeable in physiology, says that physical training needs a more scientific approach as described in this book, something that trendy fitness books tend to lack. He has also gained a deeper understanding of how mitochondria shaped the high and lows of his cycling career.
Hom hopes that his book can be a guide for others looking to get in shape and understand the science behind fitness.
“My book is meant to help anyone at any age or fitness level to be as energetic and healthy as possible. We have different chapters on exercise, nutrition, maintaining muscle mass, slowing the aging process, and staying mentally sharp. Getting older is difficult enough. You don’t want to get old and have diseases too, especially diseases that can be largely prevented with exercise. For younger readers it explains why exercise should begin at an early age, in this era of childhood obesity.”
For his part, Hom plans to continue tending his mitochondrial flock on long, intense bike rides with his wife.
By Jack Carmichael