While you already know that exercise is good for you, most of the information you see only speaks in generalities – you’ll feel better, have more energy, etc. But a recent study from Brigham Young University provides a specific, detailed benefit of exercising vigorously on a regular basis. It turns out working up a sweat can slow the aging process… on the cellular level.
So is regular, vigorous exercise a potential fountain of youth? Scientists believe so.
According to the study, published in Preventive Medicine, people who engage in high levels of physical activity have cells that are nine years younger (from a biological perspective) than people who are mainly sedentary.1 Their cells show seven fewer years of aging than people who are only moderately active. In order to be considered “highly active,” people have to work out between 30-40 minutes a day, five days a week.
The reason, according to researchers, is that highly active people have cells with substantially longer telomeres, which are caps located at the end of DNA strands that protect chromosomes. They’re somewhat comparable to the plastic tips that protect the ends of shoelaces. Just like your shoelaces will become frayed if the tips are missing, DNA strands become damaged if their telomeres aren’t completely intact. As a result, our cells won’t be able to function properly.
What Do Telomeres Have To Do With it?
If your telomeres are too short, that’s a sign your cells are aging prematurely.2 Factors that contribute to shortened telomeres include smoking, diabetes, and obesity.
BYU scientists looked at data from more than 5,800 adults who took part in a health and nutrition study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This is not only one of the few studies that include information on the length of telomeres in study subjects, it also includes participants’ exercise habits over a period of 30 days. Participants in the CDC study also completed an in-person health examination and provided a blood sample.
The BYU researchers found that people who lead sedentary lifestyles have an average of 140 fewer DNA pairs at the end of their telomeres than people who are highly active. The researchers don’t know exactly why active people have longer telomeres. One theory states that inflammation and oxidative stress can shorten telomeres, and regular activity suppresses those factors.
When Should You Start Exercising Regularly?
While people should start exercising vigorously early in life, another study using much of the same data as the BYU study showed that regular exercise starting in middle age could also help reduce aging in cells. This study appeared in the November 2015 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.3
Researchers at the University of California – San Francisco (UCSF) and the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) also looked at the relationship between telomeres and regular exercise, using much of the same data at the BYU researchers – the CDC health and nutrition study.
The UCSF/Ole Miss researchers looked at data gathered from 6,500 CDC study participants who were between 20-84 years of age. They then classified those participants into four groups, categorizing them based on their responses to exercise-related questions.
What Type of Exercise
The questions were relatively broad, asking what, if any, exercise the participant had engaged in during the previous 30 days. Did they walk, weight train, run, or ride a bike? Study subjects who answered “yes” to any of those questions received one point from researchers. So, participants who did all three of those things – lifted weights, walked, and jogged during the previous month – received three points.
The researchers then compared the point totals to the telomere length of each participant, which was available because each person in the CDC study submitted a blood sample. They found there was a clear correlation between telomere length and the amount of exercise each participant performed. People who participated in all four kinds of exercises were 59 percent less likely to have short telomeres, while those who participated in two exercises were only 24 percent less likely.
One of the more interesting results of the UCSF/Ole Miss study was that the exercise/telomere length association was strongest in people between the ages of 40 and 65.
Researchers believe this is an indication that starting an exercise regimen in mid-life is extremely important to keeping telomeres as long as possible.
However, researchers aren’t sure of the ideal amount of exercise for telomere maintenance, or whether or not having longer telomeres means you have a better chance of enjoying overall good health. But scientists generally believe that shorter telomeres indicate a shorter life span.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Both the BYU and UCSF/Ole Miss studies show that exercising regularly can be great for not only your general health, but the health of your cells as well. And the studies also indicate that engaging in a variety of exercises will likely bring about even more substantial benefits.
Is exercising an anti-aging powerhouse? It’s definitely possible, and science supports the idea. The best thing you can do is to exercise regularly. And, if you’re middle aged and you want to start an exercise routine, it is definitely not too late to reap potentially major anti-aging health benefits.