It is general knowledge that exercise leads to healthy hearts, toned muscles, and strong bones. But if you take your microscope and zoom in to your body at the cellular level, there’s new evidence to show exercise benefits the bits inside our cells too. And when it comes to the natural aging process, this is a good thing.
According to a study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers in London have found that exercise may help to keep our telomeres—the protective DNA sequences found at the ends of our chromosomes—longer than if we were to sit around on the couch all day. And the longer in length these telomeres are, the younger, biologically speaking, our cells remain.
Telomeres protect our chromosomes when they are copied during cell division. But, as our cells continue to divide and we age, these end sequences get shorter and shorter, leaving the genetic material inside the cells more susceptible to damage. After studying over 2,000 twins in the UK, researchers from King’s College in London and the New Jersey Medical School in Newark, New Jersey, have found that the more people exercise in their free time, the longer their telomeres appear to be.
In the study, the researchers analyzed blood samples from 2,401 healthy twin volunteers (mostly women) and looked at the lengths of the telomeres in their white blood cells. They assigned each participant according to their physical activity in the last 12 months to one of four categories, rated from inactive (16 minutes activity per week) to heavy activity (199 minutes activity per week). They found that, overall, the leukocyte telomere length of the most active people was around 200 nucleotides longer than that of the least active people, even when the results were adjusted for things like age, sex, socioeconomic status and physical activity at work. This length, study authors note, is equivalent to the leukocyte telomere length of sedentary individuals up to 10 years younger.
In their paper, the authors do concede that there are limitations to their study. The physical activity was self-reported and they expect there could be wide differences in the levels and intensities of exercise that fell into of each of the categories. Would the results show the same association between exercise and telomere length if all participants in each category did the same activities at the same intensities? What if one person exercised harder in the light activity category (36 minutes per week) than another in the moderate activity category (102 minutes per week)? What if there were more men analyzed, or different populations? And what about the effect from leisure exercise but not from physical exertion on the job? Why does it appear to be only exercise while at play that seems to matter?
However, regardless of the many unanswered questions, this study does add to the body of knowledge that shows exercise is good for you. So keep on exercising, running, and by all means, have fun while you’re at it. Evidently, your cells will thank you for it.
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