Back in elementary school, I remember reading about the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, and his quest to find the Fountain of Youth. This mythical spring allegedly restored the youth of anyone who drank or bathed in its waters. Sounds pretty amazing, huh?
While it’s impossible to reverse the signs of aging, what if I told you that current research is proving that exercise – yes, dependable ol’ exercise - can actually slow down the aging process? By looking at our bodies at a cellular level, scientists have found that aerobic exercise helps with keeping our cells strong, increases its regenerative ability, and basically aids in a healthy aging process.
I know I’ve written several other posts touting the benefits of exercise, such as improved mental health (click here to read the full blog) or boosting energy. These are great results anyone can achieve by participating in a regular exercise routine. But to have actual proof that exercise can slow down the aging process is pretty incredible, at least in my mind. Let’s dig in a little further to understand the science behind this statement.
EXERCISE’S EFFECTS ON OUR CELLS
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, and in the nucleus of these cells you’ll find the DNA molecule packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes. At the end of our chromosomes are distinctive structures called telomeres. Much like the plastic tip you find at the end of a shoelace, telomeres protect the ends of our chromosomes by forming a cap. Without the cap, your shoelace would become frayed until they can no longer do their job. The same goes for DNA strands; without telomeres, they become damaged, and our cells can no longer perform.
Throughout our lives, our cells are constantly copying themselves. However, each time that this happens, the telomeres get shorter. At a certain point, telomeres get too short to do their job, causing our cells to age and stop functioning properly. Therefore, it’s fair to think of telomeres as the aging clock in every cell.
For a while, researchers were only looking at what negatively impacts the length of telomeres. The main culprits were found to be stress (both environmental and mental), obesity, smoking and poor diet – no surprise here!! Interestingly though, not much research was being done on what could positively impact, or lengthen, a telomere. When looked at from that angle, it was discovered that exercise had a huge impact on lengthening telomeres.
How in the world can this be? Well, exercise was being shown to boost levels of nuclear respiratory factor 1 (NRF1), a compound that regulates the production of a factor that in turn controls the shortening of the telomeres. So if exercise was boosting levels of NRF1, it was also protecting the telomeres from being snipped away.
Researchers concluded that with each bout of moderate exercise, the protection to the telomeres was refreshed, thus helping the DNA, and in turn the cells to remain “younger” and hold off the aging process. Pretty amazing, huh? Just think - the protection of telomeres could constantly be renewed upon exercise.
BETTER LENGTH, BETTER HEALTH
As mentioned before, certain lifestyle factors increase the pace of telomere shortening, leading to illness and/or premature death. And with that, accelerated telomere shortening is associated with early onset of many age-associated health problems, including heart disease, dementia, and osteoporosis. Not to scare you, but individuals whose telomeres are shorter than the corresponding average telomere length are three times more likely to have a heart attack!
Another somber finding related to telomere length is its direct link to many cancers; individuals with shorter telomeres seem to have a greater risk for development of lung, bladder, renal cell, gastrointestinal, and head and neck cancers.
SO HOW CAN I LENGTHEN MY TELOMERES?
While science still isn’t 100 percent sure how telomere length affects how we age, it’s clear that the longer our telomeres are, the better. The good news is that there are a variety of lifestyle changes you can make today, besides exercise, to lengthen your telomeres.
Control and Reduce Stress
Chronic stress doesn’t just put you in a bad mood; it contributes to aging in a very real way. Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and carving out time for yourself daily are all easy ways to help bust stress.
Eat a Range of Foods for Antioxidant and Vitamin Benefits
Foods high in vitamins and anti-inflammatory properties are believed to protect cells and their telomeres from oxidative damage. A diet high in antioxidant foods, like berries and artichokes, can slow down aging and help prevent or reduce cell damage.
Practice Meditation and Yoga
Meditation comes in different forms for different people. For some, it may be attending a regular yoga class. For others, it may be going on nature walks with your dog. Whatever your meditation looks like, it’s clear it’s good for our minds and bodies.
While the above suggestions are quite important, the greatest step one can take to prevent telomere shortening (and hence aging) will be to incorporate exercise into your lifestyle. But not all exercise is created equal. Read on to see what I mean.
BUT NOT ALL EXERCISE IS CREATED EQUAL
“Okay, I get it Dr. Rob - exercise is associated with longevity,” you might be thinking to yourself. Yes, the more you exercise, the better chance you have at living a longer life. But not all exercises will have the same impact . Stay with me on this…..
Studies are showing that aerobic endurance training and interval training (both endurance activities), appear to be the most effective form of exercise, as it increases a cell’s protection from shortening of telomeres. Other studies are showing that moderate-intensity exercise is the most beneficial intensity level of exercise at slowing the decline in telomere length. If you combine these results, the best approach would be for you to perform aerobic exercise at moderate intensity over a period of time to achieve the most effective method of slowing down telomere shortening.
Please don’t read this and conclude that endurance training should replace resistance or strength training. While it’s true that endurance exercise does have the edge when it comes to telomeres, there are numerous health benefits from resistance training, such as positively affecting health risk factors like insulin resistance, resting metabolic rate, glucose metabolism, blood pressure, body fat, and gastrointestinal transit time, which are associated with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
What I do suggest is for resistance training to be combined with endurance training and that it is best not to perform either form of training alone, although more research is needed here.
Another interesting point I’d like to share is considering the value of exercise on telomere length, it would appear the more exercise the better. And while ultra-endurance athletes have shown to add on years of life compared to sedentary individuals, their telomere length is marginal compared to those who partake in regular, moderate activity.
Over-trainers may even display opposing telomeric results, particularly in individuals who have developed fatigue-overtraining syndrome (different topic for a different day - be sure not to miss out! Click HERE to be added to our list), a condition caused by overuse and damage to the muscle cells following rigorous exercise. Interestingly, the syndrome can occur in beginner and advanced athletes, as it develops not based on experience level, but on the premise of too much training and not enough rest and recovery. If you are an extreme athlete, working with a training expert or educated physical therapist is encouraged to lessen the risk of fatigue-overtraining syndrome.
If you have specific questions about how to incorporate the correct amount of aerobic endurance training, resistance training, and/or interval training into your day, please feel free to check out our website HERE or reach out at 516-387-4669. Also, if you have any specific topics that you would like us to cover, please feel free to use the links and number mentioned to let us know as well. We will soon be back at getting into webinars and seminars to provide higher level and more in-depth examination into different topics you have been wanting to learn. Lastly, don't forget to give us a follow on Facebook at Ascent Physical Therapy, PLLC and on our Instagram page HERE .
Keep up the great work out there!!