Exercise and Telomeres



As if you didn’t have enough reasons to exercise, I’m going to bring a new one to the table. It seems that telomere length and exercise are correlated.

What are telomeres?

Need a refresher? Telomeres are like the aglets on the ends of shoe laces: they bind up the ends of your chromosomes so that your DNA doesn’t unravel. Like aglets, telomeres wear down over time and this can lead to fraying, which leads you to buy more shoelaces or your affected cells to die. Longer telomeres are associated with longer life and fewer diseases.

We already know that the Mediterranean diet and telomere length are positively correlated (but only correlated–we haven’t established causation yet) and that the whole diet had a greater effect than the sum of its parts (that’s what we call synergy, folks!). But what about the other half of a healthy lifestyle? What about exercise?

The Research

Telomeres and exercise definitely show some sort of correlation. In one study published in JAMA’s Internal Medicine, twins with different exercise habits were poled and the telomeres in their white blood cells measured. It showed that even people with identical DNA (in the case of identical twins) or very, very similar DNA (in the case of fraternal twins), had longer telomeres when they were more active.

Those in the highest activity bracket (exercising a mean average of 199 minutes per week, or just less than 30 minutes per day) had telomeres that were an average of 200 nucleotides longer than their sedentary counterparts (a mean average of 16 minutes per week, just over 2 minutes per day). More interesting: a secondary note was made that those who engaged in heavy activity in their twenties had telomeres more than 150 nucleotides longer than those who were not active in their twenties (while causation has not been proven, the time to get on this is now, ladies!) [1].

In a pilot study, ten athletes and ten moderately exercising men in across two ages groups (half were in their twenties and half in their late sixties or early seventies). In this study, muscle telomere length was measured and maximal oxygen intake (VO2max) was also gathered. The athletes in the older group had longer telomeres than the moderately exercising subjects and among the athletes, those with higher VO2max had longer telomeres than those with lower VO2max [2].

In another small study (only 22 men), showed that half an hour of “acute exercise” (they also tested VO2, this time having the participants exercise at 80% of the maximum) lead to telomere lengthening in immune cells [3]. This provides a possible reason for those longer telomere lengths in the twin study.

What Does This Mean?

Exercise is good for you–we all know this. But the correlations between exercise and telomere length are really exciting. If we find that exercise causes telomere lengthening, then exercise is literally rebuilding your body, stopping it from actual aging. And that is cool.

While longer telomeres are correlated with lower disease rates for things like diabetes, longer telomeres can also lead to cancer, and issue raised in an article at NPR. Telomeres are actually one reason cancer is so bad in the first place. Cancerous cells are able to divide endlessly because their telomeres are constantly rebuilt by telomerase, while normal body cells don’t get the same treatment. And this is how the tumors are created: the cancerous cells don’t know when to stop dividing and they don’t divide themselves to death because of their telomeres.

While this is a valid concern, before cancer can develop, many cellular components and genes must be damaged or mutated. Healthy cells know when to stop dividing and growing. As long as possible methods of lengthening telomeres don’t mess with cellular regulation for things like division and growth, healthy cells are just getting an anti-aging boost and not a Frankenstein-esqe, monstrous resurrection to cause destruction.

So, sorry if you were hoping for an excuse to sit and read quietly: it’s time to get up and get moving (and then get back here to keep up on nutrition **winkwink**).


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