There is plentiful evidence supporting the ability of exercise to slow the effects of aging and improve overall health. And research is mounting that a substantial source of that anti-aging power may come in the form of telomere length maintenance. I talk about telomeres in this post and discuss a bit about why they are important. Existing research tells us that longer telomeres are associated with slower cellular aging. It turns out that engaging in exercise as we age might be one of the best ways to maintain telomere length and increase longevity.
Engaging in vigorous exercise throughout life may have a profound impact on telomere length. The Berlin Aging Study II included 815 men and women between the ages of 61 and 82 and measured their telomere length and physical activity. Researchers found physical activity to be positively associated with telomere length, with a significantly higher average telomere length for those who were currently active (1). The highest impact on telomere length was found for those who participated in intense activity, and for those who had been physically active at least since the age of 42. Interestingly, there was no effect of physical activity on telomere length for those who only exercised between the ages of 20 and 30 and had not maintained an exercise regime since. In fact, exercising during that time period was no different from not ever having exercised.
The positive relationship between exercise and telomere length is most evident later in life. Longer telomeres are associated with gait speed, sit-to-stand ability, and with a slower decline in grip strength among older people (2, 3), and research consistently shows a positive relationship between endurance athletics and longer telomeres in older athletes, but little to no significant relationship amongst younger athletes (2, 3, 4, 5). One study explored the potential impact of regular exercise training on telomere length in older women specifically (6). Postmenopausal women who exercised for at least 60 minutes 3 or more times per week for about a year and a half had significantly longer telomeres than their sedentary peers. This study was somewhat unique in that it showed the positive effects of both aerobic and resistance exercise.
Similar findings come from a twin study, showing telomere length to be positively associated with physical activity in leisure time (7). Twins who were inactive during leisure time were found to have shorter telomeres than their active counterparts. Findings were still significant after controlling for age, sex, non-smoking status, BMI, and physical activity at work. Furthermore, work-related physical activity was not positively associated with telomere length, suggesting that there is something unique about leisure time exercise.
Endurance exercise may have a particularly beneficial impact on telomere length. In a study with ultramarathoners and healthy counterparts, the ultramarathoners were found to have 11% longer telomeres than controls (3). Researchers translated that to about a 16.5 year difference in biological age. There was no significant relationship between age and telomere length in the ultrarunners, with similar telomere length found in both older and younger athletes. Another study compared young (18-32 yrs) and older (55-72 yrs) sedentary and endurance exercise-trained adults (8). Telomere length was shorter in older versus younger sedentary adults. However, telomeres of older endurance-trained adults were longer than sedentary older adults and were not significantly different from young exercise-trained adults. Both of these studies suggest that telomere length is preserved in older adults who engage in endurance exercise, to the extent that their telomeres are of similar length to those of younger active adults.
Exercise has also been shown to buffer the impact of stress on telomere length. Chronic stress is associated with shorter telomeres, but there is evidence that vigorous physical activity buffers the relationship between stress and telomere length. In another study with healthy postmenopausal women, researchers found that the relationship between perceived stress levels and telomere length was significantly moderated by whether the women engaged in physical activity (5). Those who were not active experienced telomere shortening when experiencing stress, while those who were active and stressed saw little to no change in telomere length. The women in the study were considered active if they exercised for at least 14 minutes a day, and it seems that 14 minutes was all that was necessary to prevent telomere shortening in the face of chronic stress.
How it works – maybe
This field of research is still quite new, and researchers are not yet sure how exercise might prevent telomere shortening. One possibility is that physical activity activates telomerase, an enzyme that adds length to telomeres. Another is that exercise buffers telomere shortening by affecting the balance between oxidative stress and antioxidants. Physical activity may also be protective via autonomic, neuroendocrine, and cognitive pathways. It’s also possible that a combination of these mechanisms impact telomere length, or that there is something happening that we don’t yet know about. It will be exciting to watch the research come out as the field continues to expand.
- Keep moving! To reap the longevity rewards, it is important to stay active throughout all stages of life. One of the most consistent threads in the exercise and telomere literature is the importance of maintaining exercise throughout life. Exercising only when young does not seem to confer any long-term benefit in terms telomere length, and former athletes have telomere length similar to that of their sedentary counterparts.
- Endurance exercise might be best. There is a lot of research addressing the benefit of endurance exercise with regard to telomere length, and little evidence for benefits of other exercise types. However, this might be a product of researchers’ preferred study topic rather than a true superiority of endurance exercise. That said, the evidence is pretty clear that endurance exercise is beneficial, so if you enjoy an endurance activity, it’s probably worth keeping it up.
- But mostly, do the exercise you’ll enjoy. Though research on other types of exercise is limited, there is evidence that any movement is beneficial. It’s often said that the best exercise is the one you will participate in, and I think that holds true in the case of telomere maintenance as well.
- Saßenroth D, Meyer A, Salewsky B, Kroh M, Norman K, Steinhagen-Thiessen E, et al. (2015) Sports and Exercise at Different Ages and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Later Life – Data from the Berlin Aging Study II (BASE-II). PLoS ONE 10(12).
- Archer, T. (2015). Exercise influences in depressive disorders: Symptoms, biomarkers, and telomeres. Clinical Depression, 1(1), 1-3.
- Denham, J., O’Brien, B., & Charcher, F. (2016). Telomere length maintenance and cardio-metabolic disease prevention through exercise training. Sports Medicine, 1-25.
- Laine, M. et al (2015). Effect of intensive exercise in early adult life on telomere length in later life in men. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 14(2).
- 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. 2010. PLoS ONE 5(5).
- Beate, I. et al. (2012). Telomere length and long-term endurance exercise: Does exercise training affect biological age? A pilot study. PLoS ONE, 7(12).
- Cherkas et al. (2008). The association between physical activity in leisure time and leukocyte telomere length. Archives of Internal Medicine, 168(2).
- LaRocca, T., Sealse, D., & Pierce, G. (2010). Leukocyte telomere length is preserved with aging in endurance exercise-trained adults and related to maximal aerobic capacity. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 131(2), 165-167.