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Too little exercise accelerates biological aging and shortens telomeres

The aging process is inevitable for all of us. However, there are things we can do to forestall negative biological changes while enhancing quality of life. One of the most effective defenses against the effects of aging is regular exercise. In fact, The Dallas Bed Rest Study of 1966 showed that three weeks of staying in bed (without exercise) resulted in devastating changes to biological health, including a drop in the heart’s maximum pumping capacity, higher systolic blood pressures, faster resting heart rates, increased body fat, and decreased muscle strength. After three weeks in bed with no activity, the 20-year-old male subjects in the study showed physical characteristics of men twice their age.

Fact: Exercise turns back the clock biologically

The subjects were then put on an 8-week exercise program. The deterioration was reversed, and some men experienced better health measurements than their initial baseline levels.

The subjects were reevaluated 30 years later, and the years had not been kind. The men gained an average of 50 pounds each and doubled their body fat. They also suffered cardiac effects, with higher blood pressure and resting heart rate and a fall in pumping capacity. That said, their cardiac functioning was still better at age 50 than after their three weeks of bed rest at age 20. The subjects were then put on a six month exercise regimen that included moderate amounts of jogging, brisk walking and bicycling. All of their cardiac numbers went back to the baseline levels they enjoyed in their 20s. Why is exercise so beneficial to heart health? It helps keep this essential muscle supple and strong, and the arteries robust and flexible. Blood pressure and the heart’s resting rate are lowered, and it becomes better at pumping oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.

The role of DNA and telomeres in the aging process

There is also a genetic component to how we age. With each cell division, the DNA is copied, causing a portion of the chromosomes that house it – the telomeres – to become shorter. This shortening is linked with the aging process. A de Duve Institute study out of the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels found that even moderate exercise tells our DNA to slow cellular aging and preserve telemores length. In the study, exercise was found to boost levels of NRF1, a key compound connected with protecting the telomeres from being shortened. Each session of exercise seems to refresh this protective layer around the telomeres, slowing the aging process. A UC San Francisco and Preventive Medicine Research Institute study found similar results.

Additional benefits of regular exercise include reduced blood sugar, improved insulin sensitivity and better cholesterol numbers. Exercise also preserves brain health, elevates mood and improves sleep quality. The key to reaping the anti-aging benefits of exercise is consistency. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking five times per week can bring all of these benefits and more. With so many health benefits, a commitment to regular exercise should be high on everyone’s list.

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