Updated: Feb 21, 2019
There can be many motivations for working out, or for starting on a new fitness regime, but one of the most powerful has to be the potential promise of exercise to slow the ageing process.
As Gretchen Reynolds, in her recent New York Times piece, Does Exercise Slow the Ageing Process?, points out this is partly because ageing is associated in many peoples minds with a loss of vitality and attractiveness.
This in itself is interesting, as culturally this is a perception that can change as the dominant culture changes - some cultures value elder members of society, whereas today in western society to be young is where it’s at!
There has over the years been accumulating evidence that regular exercise can actually slow the ageing process, particularly if such exercise is taken up in middle age.
This research focusses on the effects of ageing on our cells and particularly what are known as telomeres, which are the ends of our DNA strands. These are held by those in the know to protect our DNA from damage during cell division and replication. However, during the ageing process these telomeres shorten and fray, partly due to a variety of environmental and lifestyle factors (smoking - almost inevitably - insomnia, obesity, diabetes etc.) and as a result cells can age ‘prematurely’.
The good news, however, is that this process can be slowed.
As Reynolds highlights in her piece, studies have shown that athletes and those older people who live active lifestyles typically have longer telomeres than their peers with more sedentary lifestyles. Most recently a new study published in October in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, by the University of Mississippi and University of California, San Francisco showed that there is accumulating evidence that this principle also applies to those in middle age.
This study pulls data generated by the American National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (which asks thousands of adults to answer questions annually concerning their health, exercise habits, as well as completing a health examination and providing a blood sample).
Recently these blood samples have been tested for telomere length in the participants’ white blood cells and the researchers in the study gathered the data for 6,500 participants, ranging in age from 20 up to 84. They then categorised the participants into four groups based on how they had responded to questions about their exercise.
Depending on how the participants answered questions probing them on how much exercise they took on a regular basis (walking, running, riding a bike etc.) they were allocated a number of points. The researchers then compared these points against each participants telomere length.
From the study those participants who reported two types of exercise were 24% less likely to have short telomeres, while three types of exercise were 29% less likely to have short telomeres and those who had participated in all four types of activities were 59% less likely to have very short telomeres.
Or, to put it another way, the more (and more exerting) the exercise, the more robust and healthy the telomeres of the person who engages in this kind of lifestyle.
Which in turn equates to slower or less perceived ageing.
It’s something of a no-brainer isn’t it?
What makes this study even more interesting is that such associations were apparently strongest among those participants between the ages of 40 and 65, suggesting that middle age may be a most important time to begin or maintain an exercise programme if the intention is to keep those pesky telomeres from shrinking, according Paul Loprinzi, Assistant Professor of Health & Exercise Science at the University of Mississippi (Loprinzi was co-author of the study, along with Jeremy Loenneke, from the University of Mississippi and Elizabeth Blackburn, Professor at the University of California, San Francisco).
There is, as you would suspect, a lot of discussion as to what can be read into such findings, though as Loprinzi suggests, such studies “have shown that telomeres are predictive of mortality,” with shorter telomeres equating to shorter lives.
“Exercise is good” for cells, according to Loprinzi, with “more exercise in greater variety” being the key to maximising results.
So there you have, from the science, as it were.
In my opinion life, however, these kinds of findings should be taken in the round. In my option life is best viewed as a marathon, in all kinds of ways, so the important thing is to keep moving, to keep aspiring and most importantly to keep thinking, both about our own individual lives and about how we live out lives in relation to others.
We have all options available to us at any given time, at some times a range of healthy options, at other times the options may be be more limited, but they are still there. The living of a healthy life is not only about burning off some fat, or getting ripped (after all, you will be ripped enough when you will be dead!).
Living a healthy life is also about living with a passion and striving for authenticity. After all, what really is the point of looking great if you have no other interests in life?
I tend to find the subject becomes too restrictive when it comes to body matters (fighting obesity, looking good, etc.). We are more than a mere envelop made of bones and flesh. We have a spirit, we are what we do and what we decide to do.
I would argue that this approach, coupled with a fitness lifestyle which focusses on optimising our natural, physical abilities is the key to living a long and healthy life.
And perhaps more important, a happy one as well.