It is no secret that exercise correlates with weight management and improvements in body mass index. Equally well known is that exercise plays a role in decreasing the risk of chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, depression, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and more. More recently, however, scientists are taking a deep dive into the effects of physical activity on lifespan.
Why do sedentary individuals have higher rates of mortality than active individuals?
Research suggests that the reason active individuals live longer might be the beneficial effect that physical activity has on telomere length. Telomeres are proteins on DNA located at the end of chromosomes and are responsible for protecting DNA’s structure and function.
However, telomeres begin to degrade during natural aging, eventually becoming shorter and less protective and leading to cell death.
Typically, telomere length has a strong relationship with the actual number of years a person has lived. However, telomere shortening also contributes to a person’s “biological age,” that is, how well or poorly an individual’s body is functioning relative to their chronological age.
Telomere shortening can accelerate as a result of uncontrollable environmental factors, but that acceleration can also be cause by controllable lifestyle factors that result in inflammation and cell stress. Several controllable lifestyle factors that have an adverse impact on telomere length include: poor diet, obesity, type 2 diabetes, smoking, less than adequate amount of sleep.
On the flip side, shorter telomere length can put individuals at risk for other diseases, like atherosclerosis.
If telomere length is affected by diet and by habits we can control, do we have the capacity to maintain their length? Can diet or specific nutrients help? What about physical activity? What if we get sufficient, restful sleep?
Research is analyzing the habits of U.S. adults and their relationship to extending or preserving telomere length and perhaps, ultimately, lifespan.
A recent study examined telomere length in 6,000 U.S. adults to determine the extent of the relationship of telomere length to varying levels of relative physical activity (sedentary, low, moderate, or high categories). The study also accounted for chronological age, gender, race, education, body mass index, and alcohol and smoking habits.
Results from this study corroborate previous findings that telomere length shortens concurrent with chronological age. Interestingly, it also found that individuals with higher physical activity levels have significantly longer telomeres than those who only do moderate activity, low activity, or lead a sedentary lifestyle.
What does telomere length translate to in human years?
Scientists interpret these results to suggest that highly active U.S. adults have a 9-year biological advantage to sedentary adults of the same demographics. There was an 8.8-year biological advantage between high- and low-activity adults and a 7.1-year biological advantage between high- and moderately-active adults.
What does this mean for you?
It means the more physically active you are, the better your chances are to maintain telomere length, which can contribute to years of reduced cellular aging; i.e., a better biological age, compared to others who are less active.
Researchers also suggest you might need to do more than the U.S. Government’s physical activity guidelines (the current recommendation is 150 minutes per week) to obtain these benefits.
Daily habits can support your telomere length so you can live long into your golden years. Start with these easy changes:
1. Clean up your diet.
Up your antioxidant intake to mitigate cellular aging. Consume more omega-3s in your diet to help you maintain healthy blood pressure and body weight/composition for your size.
2. Join a team/group exercise gym.
Thirty minutes of exercise five days a week is a good start, and finding exercise friends will help you get more exercise and enjoy it more. Invest in your future now by finding a team that will keep you motivated, or try a group exercise class (spin, boot camp, HIIT training, etc.) – they typically last 45-60 minutes. Both are excellent ways to hold you accountable for attending and participating, as well as for exceeding the 150-minute weekly recommendation.
Your cells get enough stress from daily activity. Keep them happy and healthy with sufficient water.
4. Get more sleep.
Burning the candle at both ends will eventually catch up with you. And be sure to optimize bedroom lighting, temperature, and noise so you get sufficient, high-quality, restful sleep.