As a foot specialist in Tampa Bay, I commonly see people 65-75 years of age. Upon walking into the exam room, I can usually immediately tell if a patient has lived, or is living, a relatively active lifestyle. Of course, some people have medical problems beyond their control that “take them out of the game,” but it’s amazing how much more youthful active patients appear relative to sedentary people of the same age. Recent preliminary research may give us a clue as to why physical activity has an anti-aging effect and helps stop prediabetes and other problems of metabolism…it appears that exercise may preserve the length of your telomeres.
You’re thinking, “I have telomeres?” The answer is yes. Telomeres are found at the ends of the strings of DNA inside the cells of your body. You may think of them like the piece of thin plastic wrapping at the end of shoelaces. Telomeres are known to get shorter and shorter as your cells divide over the course of your life. Some scientists can tell the age of a cell by the telomere length like a botanist can tell the age of a tree by counting the rings in the trunk.
Although scientific research on the association between telomere length and exercise has not been finalized, many medical researchers believe that “telomere length” is a way to tell someone’s “biological age.”
The authors of the current research cited in this post put it this way:
“Telomeres are hypothesized to function as mitotic clock by getting progressively shorter with every cell cycle, leading to erosion and dysfunction at cellular level, and are associated with cell cycle delay, triggering of DNA damage response, and apoptosis.”
The word “mitotic” refers to cell division. “Apoptosis” refers to a chain of events leading to a cell’s self destruction – it’s like your cell pushing a bright red button that says, “Initiate death sequence.”
Researchers looked at 10 people 66 to 77 years old, and found that endurance athletes had significantly longer telomeres compared to people who were not as active. They were all free from known cardiovascular disease, obesity, and a history of current or past smoking; none was taking regular medications – These are not your average 66-77 year olds. It is a shame how many pharmacy medications most people are taking. Many younger and even middle-aged readers wouldn’t believe it.
Anyhow, one-half the people in the group were competitive cross country skiers or runners and the other half maintained an active lifestyle, but were not higher-level competitive athletes. The researchers measured the ability of the study subjects to take in and process oxygen which is a measure of cardiovascular health, and took biopsies of their thigh muscles to study telomere length. They also looked at 10 people 22-27 years old.
In both young and old, the athletes had better cardiovascular health as measured by their ability to use oxygen, however in the young group there was no telomere length difference seen. Perhaps because their telomeres are still of relatively normal length and the differentiation is not as great? Perhaps not as easily measured? Perhaps the shortening doesn’t substantially begin until after the reproductive years?
This was just a small pilot study of only 10 people in each group. And there may be other aspects of the athlete’s lives that preserved their telomere length – other than exercise – so the results are tentative until confirmed in a larger more rigorous study.
Nevertheless, the authors conclude:
“Our results suggest that endurance exercise training may regulate the telomeres in old age, and results in slowing of ageing process by maintaining telomere length. The positive association of VO2max and telomere length underscores the importance of aerobic fitness for healthy ageing.”
Some form of endurance exercise is beneficial at all ages, especially as you become older and vulnerable to metabolic problems such as prediabetes and increased body weight. As you approach your more senior years, and your feet may not be able to take the repetitive stress of walking, consider riding a bicycle – tricycle if need be – or swimming. If you are unable to swim, get in a pool with a float and kick your legs. Contraction of the large muscles of the legs can have a powerful effect in helping you maintain your ability to process oxygen (what is referred to in the telemere study as “VO2max”). And you do not need to move for a very long time. Some movement is better than none.
Balance movements and stretching are also very important as you age. Many joint problems involving the low-back, hips, knees and feet could be avoided if people took a little time to maintain some muscle flexibility.
You should also do some form of resistance exercise on a regular basis. Yes, this means lifting weights. Again, this is very important as you get older, especially for the leg muscles. The muscles of the legs are not as well preserved by the body as we age, and they need special attention. If you want to continue to move, avoid or stop prediabetes, or avoid becoming overweight and unhealthy, you need to maintain leg muscle mass. It is the key to a functional happier aging process.
If you have a foot or ankle problem that is keeping you from living an active lifestyle that will give you long glorious telemeres into your senior years, not to mention making you look younger too, see a podiatrist foot specialist.
You may read the entire study here.