Move! Your Life Depends on It

Runners warming up
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Exercise isn’t just important to expend a few calories. Unless you are a professional athlete, the calories burned during exercise make up a very small portion of the total calories burned for the day. In fact, what we eat has a much greater influence on our body weight. So, why should we bother to exercise?

Evidence in the past few years has emerged to show that, in addition to reducing our risk for chronic disease, moderate to vigorous exercise may also slow the aging process at the DNA level.

One area of this research centers on telomeres, which are the "tips" or caps at the ends of our chromosomes and are sequences of non-coding DNA. Telomeres play a critical role in human health.

Shorter telomeres are linked to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, oxidative stress, and obesity. A low level of physical activity contributes to these conditions, and therefore maintenance of telomere length may be one link between exercise, disease prevention, and longevity.

A number of studies have now documented links between physical activity and longer telomere length in white blood cells or skeletal muscle cells. Many of these studies have found that those who exercise regularly have "younger" DNA than those who are sedentary.

In a five-year study where study participants made lifestyle modifications, including walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week, there was an increase in telomere length of approximately 10 percent.

In those who did not participate in the lifestyle modifications (the control group), the telomeres were actually three percent shorter.

Another study showed that individuals ages 55 to 72 who regularly engaged in vigorous exercise (endurance training) not only had longer telomeres than sedentary people their own age but also had similar telomere length to people years younger (ages 18 to 32) who also exercise vigorously.

This suggests that exercise contributes to slower cellular aging.

The Important Benefits of Exercise

The pathways by which exercise may affect telomere length are still under study and may be due to alleviating oxidative stress and/or inflammation. Studies support consistent moderate or vigorous activity and exercise to slow the process of biological aging. But there are so many other good reasons to keep us moving. Among the systems it benefits:

The cardiovascular system:

  • Exercising regularly reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes by 30 to 50 percent. 
  • When you exercise, your heart muscle is getting a workout, too. The heart becomes more efficient as you continue to exercise, causing the resting heart rate to decrease, which may protect against cardiac death.
  • Regular physical activity helps to increase production of nitric oxide in the cardiovascular system, a regulator of blood pressure. A higher level of nitric oxide also results in improved blood flow to skeletal muscle and the heart.

The brain:

  • Exercise is a natural mood elevator, and studies have shown exercise to be as effective as medication for depression.
  • Physical activity has been consistently linked to improved cognitive function and mental alertness. Regular walking was shown to decrease the risk of cognitive impairment in older adults, and strength training also produces benefits for brain function.

    The rest of the body:

    • Gaining muscle strength improves bone strength — exercise protects against osteoporosis.
    • Exercise is linked to a reduced risk of several common cancers.
    • Exercise builds up the body’s natural antioxidant defenses. 
    • Exercise improves sleep quality. 
    • Exercise protects against chronic inflammation. 

    Not Just Exercise

    Of course, nothing works in isolation. The aging process is complex and much is yet to be determined, but lifestyle choices definitely play an important role. The best approach to living a long, healthy, active life is to maintain a proper diet consisting of whole, nutrient-rich, natural plant foods, in addition to exercising daily, reducing stress, and building and maintaining healthy relationships.


    Cassidy A, De Vivo I, Liu Y, et al. Associations between diet, lifestyle factors, and telomere length in women. Am J Clin Nutr 2010, 91:1273-1280.

    Marcon F, Siniscalchi E, Crebelli R, et al. Diet-related telomere shortening and chromosome stability. Mutagenesis 2012, 27:49-57.

    Physical activity and telomere biology: Exploring the link with aging-related disease prevention. []

    Tiainen AM, Mannisto S, Blomstedt PA, et al. Leukocyte telomere length and its relation to food and nutrient intake in an elderly population. Eur J Clin Nutr 2012, 66:1290-1294.

    Xu Q, Parks CG, DeRoo LA, et al. Multivitamin use and telomere length in women. Am J Clin Nutr 2009, 89:1857-1863

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