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Telomeres and Exercise

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January 8, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

People who do “extreme” exercise—heavy weight training, endurance games, multi-mile runners—are the strongest and fittest among us. Aren’t they?

Well, it’s not unreasonable to equate extreme fitness with extreme health and longevity.

But that’s recently been proven wrong.

Stress on the body is still stress. And it’s not entirely healthy. And there’s plenty of research, old and new, that supports this somewhat surprising conclusion.

What our telomeres tell us about age, health, and physical activity

Telomeres are like little caps that protect the ends of our chromosomes when our cells divide.

But every time our cells divide, our telomeres get the tiniest shade shorter.

As infants, we have long telomeres, and it’s normal that every time a cell divides, a piece of telomere falls off, making it shorter. But telomeres can get too small, in which case, a cell dies or mutates, opening the door to health problems.

Indeed, shorter telomeres have become associated with a broad range of aging-related diseases, including many types of cancer, stroke, dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes.

The long telomere game: lifestyle, including activity

A recent study looked at the “physical activity” of more than 2,400 subjects. (“Physical activity” is less formal and less rigorous than gym- and equipment-dependent “exercise.”)

The most physically active people had telomeres as long and healthy as people who were 10 years younger.

We’ve all intuitively known that physical activity, ranging from moderate exercise, like daily aerobic and interval training, to a brisk daily walk, is vital to overall health.

But we’ve known only recently the link between telomeres and healthy longevity.

In one recent study, the telomeres of “extreme exercise” people were shorter—making them biologically older than their chronological age. These folks would be the heavy lifters and the long-distance endurance trainers…the folks who just, well, overdo it.

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Bad lifestyle habits have also been shown to shorten telomeres. Poor diet, obesity, stress, alcohol, smoking, social isolation—the usual suspects all do damage.

Send age offstage

One of my favorite writers separates lifespan, or how long we live, from healthspan—how long we live happy, healthy lives.

The data tell a sorry tale. From the recent Global Burden of Disease Study report:, American men spend 11 of their 76-year average lifespan expectancy sick or disabled. For American women, it’s 13 years of your 81-year life expectancy sick or disabled.

This is really a shame. Especially because the bad habits that lead us toward illness or disability aren’t forced on us. We choose them.

A recent Danish study, along with other studies over the past decade, found that the longer your telomeres, the lower your risk of cancer, stroke, dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes—and the fewer your risks of death from any cause.

So, how do you lengthen and preserve your telomeres? Great question.

A study of nearly 5,000 middle-aged and older women, over nearly a decade, found that those who most closely followed a Mediterranean-type diet had the longest telomeres in their age group. For every one-point increase in diet adherence score, telomere length increased by the equivalent of 1.5 years. That is, their life expectancy increased by a year and a half.

Another study, of 100 sedentary, overweight, middle-aged and older men and women, found similar results attributable to taking daily fish oil supplements. Every one-point improvement in their omega-6 to omega-3 ratios corresponded with telomeres the length of someone one year younger.

More support?

A study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found that people with the highest blood omega-3s had much slower telomere shortening.

New Year’s resolution? Make it long.

If you’re not already taking a fish oil supplement, this should convince you to start. And if you’re not already following the Mediterranean lifestyle, ditto.

Other habits that I think are highly likely to improve telomere length cover all of the Health 101 basics: stress management, weight loss, stopping smoking, better sleep patterns, and getting help for mental health disorders.

For now, my recommendations are these:

  1. Mediterranean diet, pronto
  2. Moderate exercise, like a 30 minute walk every day (if you’re new to exercise, work your way up from 10 minutes a day)
  3. Gentle stretching, yoga, or meditation 60 minutes daily
  4. Supportive social activities, group meetings

I wish you happy longer telomeres, longer healthspan, and long life!

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