It happens at different rates based on lifestyle, yet no one escapes the aging process. Just as metal becomes old and rusty and food decays, our bodies gradually age. Unlike a piece of metal, the signature signs of aging in humans are achy joints, wrinkles, cataracts, loss of muscle and bone mass, and decreased cognitive function. Yet, aging actually happens first at the cellular level, long before it manifests on the surface.
Cellular Aging: How Your Cells Age
We live in a world governed by entropy – the physical law that says everything moves toward a greater state of disorder. This tendency towards chaos and randomness happens at the cellular level too. In response to environmental exposures, toxins in foods, and inflammation, cells develop mutations in the genetic material called DNA that allows them to reproduce. Plus, the same mutations and damage to DNA affect the energy-producing component of cells, the mitochondria.
Once cells become damaged, they either die or become “senescent,” meaning they no longer divide or reproduce themselves. What scientists have also learned is that senescent cells, even though quiescent, add to the aging process by releasing inflammatory chemicals that cause further tissue damage. No doubt about it, inflammation is the enemy of successful aging. As you can see, there’s a lot going on at the cellular level that fuels growing older.
Cellular Aging: Exercise as Anti-Aging Medicine
What role might exercise play in the aging process? We already know that exercise reduces the risk of a number of chronic health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. Resistance training also helps prevent the loss of muscle and bone tissue that’s so characteristic of aging. Yet another intriguing question is whether regular workouts slow aging at the cellular level. Preliminary studies suggest that exercise may very well influence the aging of cells.
How do we know this? At the tips of chromosomes, coiled strands of DNA inside cells, are telomeres. Think of telomeres as the caps that keep DNA, the genetic material, from unraveling during cell division. As cells divide, these telomeres become shorter. Eventually, the telomeres contract to the point that they can no longer do their job and the cell is unable to divide to form a likeness of itself. At this point, the cell either dies or becomes senescent. As you might expect, if cells have longer telomeres they can divide many more times than a cell with short, stubby ones. That’s why scientists believe telomere length is a marker for the age of a cell. Short telomeres are an indicator that a cell has accumulated too much wear and tear, just as our bodies sustain damage as we age.
Cellular Aging: What Does Research Show?
Here’s where it gets interesting. German researchers compared the telomere length of people of various ages, some sedentary and some who exercised regularly. In this study, the participants ran, some as much as 45 miles a week. When they looked at white blood cells from these inactive and active participants, they made some noteworthy observations. Middle-aged subjects who exercised had telomeres that were 40% longer than their inactive counterparts. What’s amazing is the older subjects who exercised experienced 75% less telomere shortening than would be expected.
Of course, the older subjects in the study had been exercising for a while. What if you’re late to the fitness movement and have spent most of your adult years sedentary. Are you destined to have tiny telomeres? Just as importantly, is there a way to lengthen those shortened telomeres? In one study, researchers looked at the telomeres of 35 men diagnosed with early prostate cancer. Some of the men began exercising AND adopted a whole food diet, low in processed carbs. They also took measures to reduce stress by doing yoga and meditating.
The results? When researchers measured their telomeres, they were 10% longer relative to the control group. So, yes, it may be possible to lengthen your telomeres with exercise and, potentially, other healthy lifestyle changes. As this study, suggests, nutrition and stress relief are likely part of the equation as well. It also raises the possibility that aging is reversible.
Cellular Aging: Stress Relief Is Important Too
Yet another study found that stress is linked with telomere shortening, possibly related to the release of the stress hormone cortisol. If you’re under chronic stress, your adrenal glands release more cortisol. Not only does this make it harder for your immune system to fight off infection, but it also increases oxidative stress. In turn, oxidative stress can damage telomeres and contribute to cell aging. When researchers compared the telomeres of women under chronic stress with those who weren’t, their telomere lengths differed by about 10 years.
Cellular Aging: How about Diet?
As mentioned, eating a whole food diet, in conjunction with exercise and stress management may benefit your telomeres and, in turn, your cells. Yet another study correlated telomere length with diets high in fiber and healthy fats. It’s hard to go wrong adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet. These foods contain an abundance of compounds that help stymy oxidative damage, one probable cause of telomere shortening and damage.
Finally, a study found a link between diet and telomere shortening. This time it’s the Mediterranean diet. In the study, women who ate a traditional Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, legumes, nuts, and fish, had longer telomeres. They scored the women based on how closely they followed the Mediterranean diet. Each three-point difference in their scores corresponded with a 4.5 difference in telomere aging.
What Does This Mean?
You can’t completely stop the aging process, even if you eat the perfect diet and work out every day. Yet, there’s growing evidence that lifestyle habits, including exercise, may slow cell aging. For maximum anti-aging benefits, you’ll gain the most anti-aging protection by eating a high-fiber, whole food based diet and exercising regularly. Also, make sure you’re dealing with stress rather than letting it destroy your health. As you might also guess, avoiding toxins, particularly cigarette smoke, will help you avoid damage to those trusty telomeres that help protect your cells from death or senescence. It comes down to staying active and leading an overall healthy lifestyle.
NY Times Well. “How Exercising Keeps Your Cells Young”
UCSF. “Brief exercise reduces the impact of stress on cell aging, UCSF study shows”
Everyday Health. “Diet and Exercise May Reverse Cellular Aging, Study Says”
Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2011 Jan; 14(1): 28–34. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e32834121b1
Live Science. “Mediterranean Diet Linked To Slower Aging”
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