The new year inevitably comes with renewed goals, especially in improving health and wellness. While our collective inspiration is often to shed excess pounds or fit into that old pair of jeans, there’s an even more important reason to exercise.
Aside from cardiovascular and weight loss benefits, researchers have discovered concrete links between exercise and cellular health. A 2018 study by the University of British Columbia on family caregivers revealed that aerobic exercise lengthened telomeres and significantly reduced stress. Telomeres--protective segments of DNA capping the ends of chromosomes--are essential in maintaining cellular health and slowing the aging process.
The Link Between Exercise And Cellular Health
Cellular health can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as diet, toxins, stress levels, and age. One important part of a cell’s healthy functioning is its DNA--of which telomeres are essential. These end-cap structures on the chromosomes keep DNA healthy, though they naturally shorten every time a cell divides. Ultimately, this leads to senescence, or cell death.
One key factor influencing telomere length is lifestyle. In addition to a nutritious and varied diet, exercise has a positive effect on cellular health. On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle is linked with shorter telomeres, leading to a reduced lifespan. One 30-year long study showed that older people who engaged in moderate exercise during their 40s and 50s had longer telomere lengths as they aged compared to others. Since longer telomere lengths keep cells healthier, overall health is better supported and less damage is done to DNA.1
A Case Study
As mentioned, the University of British Columbia’s 2018 study researched the link between exercise and cellular health. Their results add more scientific evidence of the positive benefits of exercise.
The participants consisted of 68 physically inactive people that care for family members with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, all participants in the clinical trial reported high levels of stress in their caregiving duties. After being divided into two groups, one set of volunteers was asked to exercise for 40 minutes 3-5 times per week. The other group was told to maintain their sedentary lifestyle.
The telomere lengths of all participants were examined both before and after the study. The results of the exercise group not only showed lengthened telomeres, but some reduced their body mass index (BMI) significantly. They also reported lowered levels of stress versus the control group.2
Which Exercises Have The Most Impact On Telomeres?
Knowing that exercise can lengthen telomeres and support cellular health is great news, but does intensity or type matter? Another study aimed to find out.
In its January 2019 issue, the European Heart Journal published a study by Dr. Christian M. Werner. The researchers aimed to examine whether telomere length was affected by different types of exercise. This would help clarify if all exercise lengthens telomeres or if the cellular response was more specific.
The study, composed of 124 people that had previously led an inactive lifestyle, was split up into four groups. Each group was given different exercise regimens: Aerobic endurance training (running continuously), high-intensive interval training (4x4 method), and resistance training (using 8 different exercise machines). The last group did no exercises.
The results showed that the aerobic training and HIIT method--but not the resistance training--increased telomere activity and length. While resistance training is beneficial, the study results show that aerobic and interval-based HIIT training provide the most benefits on a cellular level.3
The Role Of Nitric Oxide
While scientists are still analyzing how exercise lengthens telomeres, Dr. Werner hypothesizes that the raised levels of nitric oxide in the blood—known to cause changes in cells—might be what lengthens these protective pieces of DNA.3
Additional research by scientists adds weight to this theory. Telomerase is an enzyme that maintains the length of the telomeres. In a 2000 study examining nitric oxide’s effects on telomerase, researchers found that it disrupted telomerase, preventing the telomeres from shortening. They believe it may be that nitric oxide reacts to free radicals—unstable molecules that wreak havoc on cells and tissues—to reduce oxidative stress.4
Regardless of the exact mechanism, the research shows that nitric oxide correlates to longer telomeres. Since exercise stimulates the release of this molecule, it’s logical to conclude that breaking a sweat is a great way to support cellular health.
Protecting Cells From Stress
As Dr. Werner’s study showed, exercise also helped participants reduce stress. Chronic stress is damaging to the body and is also associated with shorter telomeres, specifically in inactive people. In turn, shorter telomeres are linked with cellular decay, leading to a variety of age-related and other health conditions and illnesses.
Exercise is a great way to alleviate stress, supporting telomere length while decreasing the shortening that chronic stress causes. While moving the body doesn’t eliminate the stress, it helps the cells to better cope and adapt to it. One study showed that exercising allowed those enduring the same psychological stressors as their inactive counterparts to retain their telomere length.
In addition to protecting cells from stress, exercising also counters the damage stress does to the nervous system. It also helps the body process the stress hormone, cortisol.5
Additional Support For Cellular Health
Exercise plays a key role in cellular health, though there is more than can be done to protect and lengthen telomeres. Studies have shown that nutraceutical supplements--such as B vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids--also increase telomere length. Conversely, research also shows that vitamin deficiencies are linked to shorter telomeres.6
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- Vidacek NŠ, Nanic L, Ravlic S, Sopta M, Geric M, Gajski G, Garaj-Vrhovac V, Rubelj I. Telomeres, nutrition, and longevity: Can we really navigate our aging? J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2017;73(1):39-47.
- Puterman E, Weiss J, Lin J, Schilf S, Slusher AL, Johansen KL, Epel ES. Aerobic exercise lengthens telomeres and reduces stress in family caregivers: A randomized controlled trial - Curt Richter Award Paper 2018. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018;98:245-252.
- Werner CM, Hecksteden A, Morsch A, Zundler J, Wegmann M, Kratzsch J, Thiery J, Hohl M, Bittenbring JT, Neumann F, Böhm M, Meyer T, Laufs U. Differential effects of endurance, interval, and resistance training on telomerase activity and telomere length in a randomized, controlled study. Eur Heart J. 2019;40(1):34-46.
- Vasa M, Breitschopf K, Zeiher AM, Dimmeler S. Nitric oxide activates telomerase and delays endothelial cell senescence. Circ Res. 2000;87(7):540-542.
- Puterman E, Lin J, Blackburn E, O’Donovan A, Adler N, Epel E. The power of exercise: buffering the effect of chronic stress on telomere length. PLoS One. 2010;5(5):e10837.
- Tsoukalas D, Fragkiadaki P, Docea AO, Alegakis AK, Sarandi E, Vakonaki E, Salataj E, Kouvidi E, Nikitovic D, Kovatsi L, Spandidos DA, Tsatsakis A, Calina D. Association of nutraceutical supplements with longer telomere length. Int J Mol Med. 2019;44(1):218-226.