Research shows that your biology responds to exercise and you may live longer and better because of it!
THIS POST presents an aspect of exercise that’s both surprising and intoxicating to anyone but those well read on longevity issues.
Yes, you may have read all sorts of information about exercise being important for weight control, that it maintains the lean muscle mass that naturally starts to fade away sometime in your thirties, and that, in old age, it helps keep your bones strong so that a slip on the linoleum doesn’t shatter your hip.
These are all good reasons to be an exercise devotee.
But what about aging? Can exercise somehow help you age better, to perhaps slow down the inevitable? Well, according to some scientists studying the effects of exercise on aging, the answer is a resounding “yes”!
Exercise and aging — a study
Recently, German scientists tested several groups of men and women with the aim of examining the life span of their cells. They were divided into several groups depending on their level of exercise habits (or none): professional athletes in their twenties who run an average of 45 miles per week; middle-aged runners (averaging 51-years old) who run 50 miles per week; and two sedentary groups (non-exercisers), one young and one middle-aged.
Here’s what the researchers discovered: the middle-aged exercisers looked much younger than the sedentary middle-aged group.
Even more surprising was what was happening beneath the surface. The white blood cells of both the active and slothful young adults had similar-size telomeres, but those of the middle-aged subjects had startlingly different telomere lengths.
What are telomeres?
Telomeres are tiny caps on the end of DNA strands. The 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine was for the discovery that their function is to protect the reproducing quality of DNA. Every time cells divide and replicate the length of the telomere cap is snipped, a process believed to protect the DNA, but with the unhappy consequence of shortening the telomere. If the telomere becomes too short, the cell dies or goes into a suspended state.
Telomere length is a reliable marker of age. The shorter they become, the older your body becomes, irrespective of your chronological age.
It’s not surprising that both the active and inactive young people in the study had telomeres of the same length, as their bodies have not experienced enough multiple cell divisions to make a difference. But that’s not the case with the middle-aged subjects.
Was there a difference between the telomere length of the middle-aged?
This is the mana of this story. When the researchers measured the telomeres of the middle-aged subjects, those of the sedentary subjects were 40% shorter than the sedentary young subjects, BUT THE ACTIVE MIDDLE-AGED SUBJECTS HAD TELEMORE LENGTHS ONLY 10% SMALLER THAN THE SEDENTARY YOUTHS!
Telomere loss was reduced by approximately 75% in the aging runners; meaning, the act of exercising reduced their aging process substantially at the molecular level.
What you can do about this.
The researchers are hopeful that it doesn’t require the exercise equivalent of running 45 miles each week to gain this longevity benefit. That amount of exercise is beyond all but the most disciplined and energized among us, particularly at the middle-age mark.
The speculation is, however, that intense exercise regularly performed over a long period of time will yield similar benefits. The challenge is to choose a form of exercise that works for you, and then work at it. Grab a friend or two and get the buddy system working for you, or join an gym and get some qualified guidance.
It’s sure worth it, because more important than yielding cardiovascular, strength, or appearance benefits, exercise may improve telomere biology. The older I get, the better that sounds.
Thanks to Gretchen Reynolds’ article, Internally Fit, for the data used here.
Published on April 16, 2010