Telomeres and the Fountain of Youth

It’s not news to most of us that a healthy lifestyle (ie, regular exercise, proper nutrition, etc.) can lead to reduced risk of disease as well as greater longevity and quality of life. But the latest news from the molecular biology world, concerning our DNA, and in particular our telomeres, is what makes those of us in the health and fitness industry really excited. A research study, published this fall in the medical journal, The Lancet Oncology, shows for the first time that healthy lifestyle habits, including proper diet and exercise, may actually lengthen telomeres, parts of our chromosomes affecting aging and susceptibility to disease.

Telomere isn’t exactly a household word yet, so let’s start there. In the simplest of terms, our DNA is one of the essential building blocks of our bodies. DNA are made up of two strands, that are twisted together to form a chain, known as the double helix, and are packed together in the nucleus of our cells to form our chromosomes.

At the end of each chromosome is a strand of DNA called a telomere, which acts as protection and keeps the chain from fraying or unraveling.

The best analogy I have heard is that a telomere is like the plastic on the end of your shoelace; when that bit breaks down and falls off, your shoelace will start to unravel. As the telomere shortens, the protection is minimized, leading to instability, aging and death of the cell. Shortened telomeres have been linked to many diseases including various forms of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis and dementia. A study performed by geneticists at the University of Utah found that people over 60 with shorter telomeres were three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times more likely to die from infectious diseases.

So what does this mean for us? Are our life spans and susceptibility to disease irreversibly encoded in our genes? Not entirely. It has been well established in the microbiology community that environmental factors can affect the length of our telomeres. Unhealthy habits like smoking, carrying excessive levels of body fat linked to poor dietary habits and lack of exercise, and even high stress can all lead to shortening of the telomeres. So it doesn’t take a microbiologist to surmise that our telomeres can be protected by engaging in healthy lifestyle habits.

This leads us to a most important new discovery about telomeres. Recent research has shown for the first time that we actually have the ability to lengthen our telomeres by embracing a healthy lifestyle, including proper nutrition, daily exercise and stress reduction. The study, conducted by scientists at UC San Francisco, and the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, followed 35 men with early-stage prostate cancer over 5 years to investigate the relationship between healthy lifestyle changes and telomere length. Ten of the participants were asked to make significant lifestyle changes, including adoption of a healthy plant-based diet, 30 minutes of moderate exercise six days per week, stress reduction techniques including yoga, meditation and weekly support groups. The other 25 participants were not asked to make any lifestyle changes.

The ten participants who made the lifestyle changes exhibited an increase in telomere length of approximately 10 percent. Those who followed the program most closely saw even greater increases in telomere length. It’s important to note that telomeres normally shorten as we age. In fact, the men in the control group who were not asked to make any significant lifestyle changes saw their telomeres shorten by three percent during the course of the five year study. This makes the positive changes all the more impressive.

“Our genes, and our telomeres, are not necessarily our fate,” says lead author Dean Ornish, UCSF clinical professor of medicine, and founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. “So often people think, ‘Oh, I have bad genes, there’s nothing I can do about it.’”

As a personal trainer and fitness industry professional, my hope is that studies like this one will empower people to make smarter choices and enjoy longer, healthier lives.

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About Michael Wood, Chief Fitness Officer
Michael Wood, CSCS, is Chief Fitness Officer at Koko FitClub, driving the development of integrated strength and cardio training and nutrition programs for Koko members nationwide. A nationally acclaimed fitness expert, Michael has conducted research as a Senior Exercise Physiologist at the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and has lectured at Boston University and the University of Connecticut. He has been named Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” Personal Trainer, and made the Men’s Journal “Dream Team” list of the nine best trainers in the U.S. Michael and his family live in North Attleboro, MA.

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