Stop the Clock: Not quite the fountain of youth, but close

Staying youthful and fighting off the aging process has been a golden goose for countless advertising agencies for longer than any of us reading this has been alive. Generally speaking, we resist the idea of growing old, and we certainly don't want to look as if we are leaving our younger years behind us. While many of the products sold as 'anti-aging' solutions have less than consistent results, one new study shows how we can in fact, slow down the aging process on a cellular level through an increase in exercise.


 

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’. Over the 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 any further than the paradox of computers continuously getting faster and more powerful while simultaneously shrinking in size. Or a drone flying around Mars sending back imagery. Or, for a real mind-bender, the fact that the average life span in the US 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 (nytimes.com))


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, never happen, those would be our normal responses, yeah? 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 2nd).

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 of 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. 5,823 adults participated in it and reported all sorts of data. 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 participants in the study, 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!