Aging is unavoidable. And we will all die someday, but, like Snoopy points out, “…on all the other days, we will not.” Science has proven that we can indeed slow down the aging process by reducing stress, exercising regularly, and eating nutrient dense whole foods.
But how does exercise affect the aging process? At the cellular level, our DNA is responsible for how “old” or “young” our cells think they are. Our cells continually divide and replicate their DNA. DNA is located in the chromosomes in our cells. Telomeres are the end caps of our chromosomes. If chromosomes are shoelaces, telomeres are the plastic coatings at the ends of the laces. Each time a cell divides and its DNA is replicated, the “end caps” become shorter and the cells become “older.” Protecting the end caps from this shortening keeps our DNA thinking it is young and therefore the cells remain young. Think of it this way, it is always best to make a photocopy of the original, not a copy of a copy, right? But by protecting the telomeres, we protect the look of the original and the next copy comes out looking the same and so on and so forth. Bouts of exercise are like putting “another coat of plastic on the ends of the shoelaces,” protecting them from shortening. When we exercise, we strengthen the telomeres and they resist the shortening process from cell division, helping to keep our cells young.
This is great news for those who wish to live longer and more youthful lives. In order to provide an efficacious dose of protection for your telomeres though, you must exercise at high levels. Exercise Science Professor Larry Tucker states that adults who exercise regularly at high levels have telomeres that appear to have nine years less of replicating damage than adults who exercise moderately or are sedentary. This is because each bout of high intensity exercise places another “coat of plastic on the ends of your shoelaces” protecting them from damage from replication. An example of high intensity exercise would be jogging for 30 minutes for women or 40 minutes for men. Tucker’s study showed that there appeared to be little to no difference in telomere length between people who exercised at low to moderate levels and sedentary people. So, in order to protect the telomeres from shortening with replication one must exercise at high intensities. Keep in mind though that any level of exercise is advantageous to your health, and as you adjust to exercise, you can increase the intensity bit by bit. See a qualified fitness professional to help you determine your high intensity heart rate range and ask your doctor if high intensity exercise is safe for you to perform. If you are a candidate for high intensity exercise, then go for it and start reinforcing those telomeres!
Sources: Larry A. Tucker: Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: an NHANES investigation. Preventative Medicine, 2017