At the significant risk of understatement, I offer you this observation: Science is amazingly awesome. If I were to use the vocabulary of my daughter and her friends, I would say that science is ‘fire.’ In recent years, I’ve found myself coming to that conclusion with increased frequency as new discoveries, technological developments and farsighted minds continue to stand on the gas pedal and accelerate how rapidly revolutionary ideas can come to life. For easy examples of this compounding effect of ideas in action, we need not look further than the paradox of computers continuously getting faster and more powerful while simultaneously shrinking in size. A drone flying around Mars sending back imagery is another good example, or, for a real mind-bender, the fact that the average life span in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last 100 years from an average of about 35 in 1920 to close to 80 in 2020. (How the Human Life Span Doubled in 100 Years – The New York Times.)
Think about that for a second. Imagine if someone told us that a century from now, the average American would live to be 160 years old: twice what we can expect now. “No way, impossible, it’ll never happen.” Those would be our normal responses, right? Yet, that’s precisely what happened in the past century. Not overnight and not by one single discovery, but like a rising tide that ceaselessly and steadily inches further up the beach.
I bring up this concept of living longer for a couple of reasons. First, on some level, I think we’re all wired to be fascinated by the idea of immortality. For instance, if you get down to it, the power to live forever is probably the most remarkable thing about being a vampire and the main reason for the enduring popularity of the premise (turning into a bat is also on the list, but a distant second).
Secondly, I read an article this week that jumped out at me as it deals with how to stretch out our time and slow the aging process. Essentially, we have a numeric age (we can’t change how that chronological clock ticks) and we have our biological age (that’s the one we can access the control panel on). I’m going to provide a couple links to additional reading so you can get the full benefit of reading about this intriguing evidence without me glossing over it, but I’ll paint the headline info. in some broad strokes.
To dive right into it, the CDC conducted a large study called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. More than 5,800 adults participated and reported all sorts of data as part of it. One distinguishing factor of this survey is that it factored in telomere length. (Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation – ScienceDirect.)
If you’re like me, you’re a little rusty on what precisely a telomere is. A straightforward definition is that they are basically the protective caps on our strands of DNA. Think of them as the plastic ends on our shoelaces that keep them from getting frayed.
Being that all of our cells consist of DNA, telomere is very literally everywhere in us. Cells are constantly replenishing by copying themselves, and each time that copy happens, the telomere gets a little bit shorter. Eventually, the telomere becomes too short to reduce any further (the end of the wick), and once that happens, the cells cannot reproduce properly and essentially get old. If you’re with me so far, the theory is that telomere is very closely associated with our biological age. As our cells age and stop working correctly, we are, in plain English, getting old.
So…back to that CDC study.
It conclusively shows that a certain amount of exercise slows the shortening of the telomere, which is another way of saying it is delaying the aging process. By preserving the telomere, cells can keep replenishing. One of the reasons this study is critical is that it goes way beyond the commonly known and often ignored wisdom that exercise is good for you and applies some specifics in the form of evidence.
Here’s the fine print, though. If you want significant results, it will take some significant effort. According to Larry Tucker, Exercise Science professor at Brigham Young University, after sifting through the CDC report findings, the conclusion is that getting maximum benefit takes being highly active five days a week. (High levels of exercise linked to nine years of less aging (at the cellular level), BYU.edu.)
Based on the report findings on the study participants, highly active meant 30 minutes of exercise a day for women and 40 minutes a day for men, five days a week. At that level of fitness activity, the expectation is that the telomeres gain a 9-year advantage concerning how quickly they reduce to the point of the ‘runway’ when the cells stop replenishing.
As a bottom line, you can be an ‘old 40’ or a ‘young 70,’ and this study shows how exercise is one of the essential factors to slowing down the biological aging process. It turns out that the fountain of youth may be real; it’s just flowing with sweat!
Eric Bartosz is the founder of BAR40 and the author of the internationally-acclaimed book ‘BAR40: Achieving Personal Excellence,’ which recently became an Amazon bestseller. He lives in Center Valley with his wife Trish, daughter Riley and pug Piper, and serves the community as an Upper Saucon firefighter, a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lehigh Valley and a local race organizer. Eric is a 20+ year runner and racer and can often be found logging miles on the Saucon Rail Trail. His Bar Talk column is published on Saucon Source twice per month.