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New Study: Long-Term Exercise is a True Fountain of Youth

By L. K. Regan

Exercise is good for you. We all know that. But new research indicates that exercising regularly over a long span of time may be a true fountain of youth. That's because scientists in Germany have discovered that regular exercise can have an anti-aging effect on human cells. And the longer you exercise, the younger you'll remain.

Cells are protected from the effects of aging by bits of DNA called telomeres. The telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes from wear and tear—effectively from fraying like the ends of an old shoelace. When the telomeres get too short, cells die. So, researchers consider the length of telomeres (and the presence of their accompanying enzyme, telomerase) as key markers of cells' health. And research on telomeres is important enough that the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to the researchers who discovered telomeres and their protective effects. Previous research has indicated that exercise has a protective effect on telomeres—but a newly published study says that these benefits increase with time. More years of working out will protect your cells longer.

Researchers in Homburg, Germany conducted a study comparing middle-aged athletes with young professional runners, looking to see whose telomeres were doing better. The study analyzed 32 professional runners with an average age of 20 years, all of them members of the German National Track and Field Team. These sprightly youngsters ran a little more than 45 miles per week. The young runners were compared with a group of middle-aged athletes who had continuously exercised since youth in endurance activities. This group averaged 51 years of age, and they ran about 50 miles per week. Finally, both groups were measured against comparably-aged control groups of people who were healthy but did not regularly exercise.

The athletes were, not surprisingly, fitter than the control groups. Both groups of athletes had lower resting heart rates, lower blood pressure, better cholesterol numbers and less excess weight. But the older athletes who had been exercising for longer had less telomere damage in their cells relative to their control group. As aging caught up with the sedentary older group, the exercisers kept it at bay. Said Ulrich Laufs, M.D., the study's lead author and a professor of medicine at Saarland University in Homburg, Germany, "This is direct evidence of an anti-aging effect of physical exercise. Physical exercise could prevent the aging of the cardiovascular system, reflecting this molecular principle."

It's worth noting that this study considered only endurance exercise, not resistance training. And, the researchers could not determine ultimate causality. In other words, who knows whether the telomeres do better because of exercise in its own right, or because exercise reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and a host of other measures that may take a toll on cells. Even so, the bottom line is clear—a lifetime commitment to fitness is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.