James Bond is one of the most famous people in the world, even though he does not exist except in books and movies. Bond, code-named “007”, was “licensed to kill” by the British secret service. He would go into enemy territory and blend in until he found his target, usually against apparently insurmountable resistance and impossible odds. And how did he prepare for his missions? After getting briefed, his first stop was meeting with “Q”, who would demonstrate a bevy of gadgets and weapons that 007 would take on his mission. That preparation would give him an edge when finding and stopping the villains.

We have parts of our bodies that are licensed to kill, and they really do exist. They do an amazing job of protecting us, but the villains they fight are very crafty, so your immune cells need an edge. We can’t give them a set of high-tech gadgets to go fight diseases, but we can equip them in many ways if we just give them what they need to do their jobs. Nutrition is an obvious need: they can’t do their work without it. But there is another preparation that really supercharges them, and it is often overlooked or minimized: exercise. And not just any exercise: while all exercise is valuable, the so-called HIIT (high-intensity interval training) exercises give them the edge they need to take on the worst diseases, particularly cancer.

While we can’t give you another James Bond story, would you settle for an action-packed NK cell story? NK cells are Natural Killer cells — the secret agents of your immune system.

The briefing
You’re an NK cell. You were likely born in some body’s bone marrow, or maybe in a lymph node, thymus, or liver. You are part of the elite team of immune system cells that are licensed to kill foreign invaders, especially cancer. You are called in to fight a particularly evil cancer which is highly metastatic, threatening to spread and take over its world (that world being a whole human body). The scheme of the cancer is to first build a secure base of operation and send disguised, well-equipped agents into other parts of the body, where they will meet a lot of resistance. Your mission is to stop the cancer cell in its tracks. There will be other NK cells doing likewise; you won’t be alone, but you might be the elite agent that takes out the key cancer cell before it gets a foothold on the body.

As an NK agent of the immune system, you are equipped with special organelles called secretory lysosomes, that can “shoot” your target with a cellular poisoning protein. Once you find your target, you can secrete these cytotoxic proteins into that cell, killing it. How you operate is the stuff of legend, story, and scientific research — as is explained in a review article published in Immunology, where researchers pick apart and explain how you find and neutralize the enemy. In this article, the researchers lay out four steps you must take. First, you detect your enemy, and this isn’t easy — you will have to get very close so you can sense certain special molecules that these cancer cells have on their outer surfaces. Next, you polarize your weapon, charging it up so that, when it fires, the proteins will travel into the enemy. You then press against the enemy’s cell membrane, which is called docking, to give it the kiss of death. Your lysosomes fuse with the enemy’s membrane, giving you direct access to shoot your cytotoxic proteins. The polarized proteins will travel into the enemy when you fire. That’s how you kill your target.

You will be entering the enemy encampment — a tumor of the vile triple-negative breast cancer (code named TNBC). TNBC is known for its effective espionage techniques, with a high success rate of sending out hardened spies to build new encampments. You and your team will be infiltrating the tumor and killing the enemy while it is still trying to build its strength, before it can take over its world. These cancer cells will send out false signals, attempting to instruct you to come over to their side and abandon your mission. They will also attempt to hide, appearing as double agents — don’t be fooled by their false signals.

Q’d up
Your meeting with Q, to super-charge you with special abilities, goes as usual: he throws a bunch of technical jargon at you and chides you for not paying serious attention. But thanks to research, such as in a technical briefing published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, you have it all documented so you can brush up on the details. Per the documentation: you may not be able to carry out your mission without an edge, because the enemy is wise and well organized. It can operate in a low oxygen mode, so you will not be able to breathe when you go into their encampment unless you are prepared, especially if you are already exhausted from previous missions. The cancer will try to look like normal cells. It will tell you that you aren’t supposed to be there, that you aren’t needed. Blood flow will be low, so you will have trouble getting nutrients, while toxic levels will be high. You will be in a very acidic environment which will make your job harder.

But Q is setting you up with a special arsenal through exercise training, so you will handle these roadblocks much better. From the research documentation, we know that this exercise will reduce your oxidative stress levels so you can operate more efficiently, it will harden you so that you can better handle the low oxygen environment; in fact, since the exercise will train you temporarily in a low oxygen mode, you will learn to kill the TNBC cells better than those without this training. It will not only build you up, but your team will multiply, with many newborn NK cells coming to your aid, because the exercise helps build your numbers.

You really HIIT it off
The TNBC has shut their ears, taking off their antennas that would allow them to receive hormonal signals that would keep them under control. The body will shout at them, and they won’t listen. They will not succumb willingly. You will have to attack rapidly and move on, and the HIIT exercise will make you feel powerful, so powerful that you can take on even the TNBC. Your effectiveness will be amazingly improved with even a single HIIT session.

The end — but not for you
There’s not much more to tell of the story of the NK cell and its mission. This story plays out all the time in your body, however. You are living the story. Your immune system is your primary defense against any cancer. Do you know how to keep your system working for you at full power? You know to keep it healthy with diet, hydration, and rest, but don’t forget exercise.

As we learn more about the metabolic changes that HIIT brings, over what slower, more sustained exercise does for you, we see that high-intensity exercise that gets your heart rate over 80% of maximum for several minutes is not only a time saver, but gives benefits that other exercise can’t match. When you do HIIT, you put yourself fully into the exercise, pushing your limits, and as a result, your body goes all out as well. Circulation is getting oxygen and nutrients to parts of your body that may be a bit starved for them otherwise. Even cancer tumors, which attempt to limit the amount of circulation through the tumor, get more oxygen with such potent exercise.

The old myth that, if you have cancer, you should just rest and conserve your strength, is a bad idea for most people. While cancer may lower your limits and your exercise quantity, you are in the greatest need of HIIT exercise. Your immune system has been struggling to accomplish its mission and it needs your help. With HIIT, you give it a fighting chance.

Exercise is not an energy drain for very long, and it actually builds your energy over time. It’s your secret weapon, whether you are in good health or suffering disease. Don’t underestimate its value, and definitely don’t let poor health or disease be an excuse to avoid exercise, particularly HIIT.


Dr. Nemec’s Review

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) — whether it is for your immune system or your general health — this unique form of exercise is the best for many reasons.

What’s the number one goal for exercise?
From a cellular point of view, it’s to move oxygen and nutrients into tissues and cells and move carbon dioxide and waste products away from tissues and cells. The more efficient an exercise is,the quicker it will do these functions.

A matter of the heart
It comes down to how quickly your circulating blood goes to and from your cells. So, what do you think does that the fastest?

  • Walking
  • Aerobic training
  • Bike riding
  • Jogging
  • Treadmill
  • Swimming
  • Weight training
  • Stair climbing
  • Running

The best way to measure how much blood is moving to the cells is by heart rate. In general, the more beats per minute, the more blood is circulating — the less beats per minute, the less iscirculating. This pertains to generally healthy people, but people with cardiovascular disease have elevated heart rate without activity. This is a sign of extreme poor health and needs healthcare supervision.

Of the above list of exercises, which ones could qualify as possible high-intensity interval training?

Aerobic training if it was highly intense for short period of time, one to three minutes, then less intense after that as a cool down.

The bike would definitely qualify if you did it this way: 1 to 3 minutes of high-intensity — 85% of heart rate maximum — then followed up with three minutes of light gradual pace as a cool down.

The treadmill would not qualify unless you could sprint on it, and most treadmills are not set up for fast running.

Swimming would be ideally one of the best exercises there is, but only if it’s all out fast swimming for one to three minutes, followed up by three minutes of slower regular swimming.

Weight training could be a valid high-intensity interval training if the weight that you were lifting was able to bring you into a high elevated heart rate for one to three minutes and then a cool down phase of three minutes — this could be cycled.

Running is high-intensity interval training, but not practical for the majority because you cannot sprint on a treadmill: you must be outside or inside on a track, which makes it inconvenient.

Stair climbing is the ideal high-intensity, interval training for most people because it’s easy and accessible, usually in their own homes.

Here’s how the routine works:

You go up and down the stairs at a brisk rate for one to three minutes, depending on your cardiovascular fitness level, then you walk for three minutes or ride a stationary bike for three minutes and you’re done with one cycle. Most people should do one cycle once to twice a day. Those who are extremely fit can do multiple cycles twice a day.

Time versus benefit ratio
There is absolutely no exercise anywhere that has these health benefits in this short amount of time with this small amount of energy invested. If you did one cycle once a day, it would only be four minutes of exercise. This would increase your cardiovascular health, your cardiovascular strength, the movement of blood to and from the organs, glands, tissues, and cells. And the most exciting fact of all is that almost everyone can do this immediately unless they have knee or joint problems. It’s important to work at your own pace. If you are cardiovascularly in poor shape, you might not even be able to go up and down the stairs — you might have to start with general walking and progress to brisk walking and that might be sufficient for you.

This exercise not only boosts the natural killer cell function, it has a number of systemic far-reaching effects. The most important is that it increases everything the cell needs and decreases everything the cell needs to get rid of.

What do you need to live?
Oxygen, water, and food, along with getting rid of waste products. The more effectively you do these the healthier your immune system is and the healthier your cells, tissues, glands and organs are going to be. This is the power of high-intensity interval training. It does not take much time and has tremendous benefits to every single cell in your body.

So start going up and down those stairs today, but go up and down them with a whole different perception and you open a whole new world of possibilities.

In Him we live and move and have our being.

(1) Topham, Nicola J, and Eric W Hewitt. “Natural killer cell cytotoxicity: how do they pull the trigger?.” Immunology vol. 128,1 (2009): 7-15. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2567.2009.03123.x, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2747134/

(2) Cho E, Stampley J, Wall R, Matthews R, Zunica E, Brown JC, Johannsen NM, Irving BA, Spielmann G. Acute Exercise Increases NK Cell Mitochondrial Respiration and Cytotoxicity against Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Cells under Hypoxic Conditions. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2023 Dec 1;55(12):2132-2142. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000003250. Epub 2023 Jul 5. PMID: 37436930; PMCID: PMC10662621.