Aging: How Running May Be Able to Stop the Clock
By: Greg Wells PhD and Jessica Caterini BSc
We live in a day and age when the eternal desire to live longer has become more and more of a reality. From ninety-year-old marathon runners to forty-year-old Olympians, everywhere you look athletes are pushing the limits of human potential - at any age. By understanding the findings of science, you can learn why some people are aging less quickly and, more importantly, you can figure out how to turn back the clock on your own life.
How Running Slows Down Aging
The amazing truth that science has discovered is that endurance activities may slow down the aging process. To start with, there are the benefits that everyone knows about: a stronger heart, more efficient blood flow, a bolstered immune system, healthy eating habits and an overall positive outlook on life, all of which offset some of the negative effects of aging. It also appears that training is effective at any age. For example, one study found that when researchers organized an exercise intervention for an elderly, previously sedentary group, markers of mitochondrial function increased.(1) (Mitochondria are the energy producing organelles in your cells.)
But that's only part of the story. The staggering part is that we now know that aerobic exercise can actually protect the genetic material in your cells. This genetic material – DNA – is what our cells use to replicate and stay healthy. This finding may send shockwaves all the way back to the middle ages and have alchemists dropping their quest for the Philosopher's Stone in favour of heading out for a run.
What the Research Tells Us
Studies have discovered that when people engage in regular aerobic exercise they maintain telomere length. Telomeres are the protective caps on our DNA - think of them like the caps on your shoelaces that keep the laces from fraying. Since your DNA generates the proteins and machinery that make your body work effectively, keeping it working well is the key to keeping your body going, and that is exactly what endurance activities seem to do. One study found that sedentary people aged 55-72 had relatively short telomeres compared to sedentary 18-32 year olds. But when comparing people in the 55-72 age group who have exercised all their lives there was no significant difference in the length of the telomeres between younger people and older athletes.(2) Running literally keeps your DNA healthy!
Along with benefits at the cellular level, research has shown that aerobic activity can protect you against many types of age-related disabilities. A twenty year study that compares runners and non-runners starting from age 50 determined that four hours of activity a week was enough to delay the onset of age related disabilities. By the 21st year of the study, the participants who were runners were down to 76 minutes per week but still reaping the rewards of running well into their nineties. The best news is that a new study with 400,000 participants has demonstrated that as little as 15 minutes of activity per day (like a brisk walk) can decrease mortality by 14 per cent, which translates into a three-year longer life expectancy.(3)
How You Can Use Exercise to Resist Aging
To get the anti-aging benefits of exercise, consider the following:
1. Establish and maintain a consistent exercise program that involves regular aerobic exercise
2. It is important to add cross training to your program because it will improve your fitness but it will also help you avoid overuse injuries from focusing exclusively on running. Consider adding swimming, cycling, strength training or yoga to your routine.
3. If you are person who has not exercised regularly in the past but is interested in taking up running, ensure that you increase mileage slowly so that your connective tissues and muscles have time to adjust to the new stress. Consider a learn-to-run program that will help you structure your training and teach you proper technique.
Nutrition and Psychology
In terms of nutrition, it is particularly important to make sure that your diet includes sufficient carbohydrates to fuel your exercise, protein for muscle growth, iron-rich foods to develop your oxygen transport potential, vitamin C to improve iron absorption and Omega-3 fatty acids which have benefits for your nervous system, brain and heart.
Mentally, the long term benefits of running give new meaning the phrase "act your age." By shifting our mindset about exercise so that we all include regular fitness in our daily experience, we can offset the aging process and ensure that we are healthy and active late in life. Not to mention feeling better about ourselves week in and week out. If you're interested check out the great book "Spark" by Dr. John Ratay, which explores the impact of exercise on the brain.
1 Short KR, Vittone JL, Bigelow ML, et al. Impact of aerobic exercise training on age-related changes in insulin sensitivity and muscle oxidative capacity. Diabetes 2003;52:1888–96
2 LaRocca TJ, Seals DR, Pierce GL. (2009). Leukocyte telomere length is preserved with aging in endurance-trained adults and related to maximal aerobic capacity. Mechanisms of aging and development 131(2):165-167
3 Chakravarty EF, Hubert HB, Lingala VB, Fries JF. (2008). Reduced disability and mortality among aging runners: a 21-year longitudinal study. Archives of Internal Medicine 168(15):1638-1646.
Greg Wells Ph.D. (www.drgregwells.com, @drgregwells) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in the Faculties of Medicine and Kinesiology. He was the sport science analyst for the Olympic Broadcast Consortium during the 2010 & 2012 Games, and is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes. Jessica Caterini is a member of the Human Physiology Research Unit in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Toronto.