Want to Stay Young? Keep Exercising

You know exercise is good for you, but did you know it can also keep you young? New studies suggest that working out may help prevent white blood cells from aging. In addition to warding off heart disease and cancer, research shows that exercise slows down the clock by working inside the white blood cell itself. 

The research was published in the journal, Circulation. "Until recently, the primary role of white blood cells was thought to be fighting off infections, said Dr. Annabelle Volgman, a cardiologist and director of the Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Newer research has shown white blood cells do much more, including continuously seeking out abnormal cell growths, such as those that cause cancer, and clearing them away.

How does exercise affect white blood cells?  Researchers studied endurance athletes and discovered they had longer telomeres in their white blood cells than healthy nonsmoking adults who did not exercise.

What are telomeres?  Telomeres are the DNA at the tips of chromosomes that protect the cell.  Researchers explain, "Telomeres can be thought of as the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces, which prevent the lace from fraying. Over the life span, cells continue to divide. Each time a cell divides the telomere is shortened. When the telomere gets too short, the cell stops dividing. When this happens, people age-gradually losing muscle strength, skin elasticity, vision, hearing, mental abilities, and so on."

They measured the length of white blood cell telomeres in two groups of professional runners.  One group's average age was 20 and they ran more than 45 miles a week.  The other group of athletes were middle-aged, (averaging age 51) who had done endurance exercise since youth and ran an average of 50 miles a week.  When these groups were compared with age-matched healthy nonsmokers who didn't exercise, they found their telomeres were much longer.  They also had increased activity of the enzyme telomerase, which maintains the telomere.  Researchers say this is direct evidence of an anti-aging effect of exercise.

The athletes also had slower resting heart rates (a sign of cardiovascular fitness) along with lower blood pressure, lower body mass index and lower cholesterol levels than the non-exercising group.  With heart disease, aging white blood cells may be one factor in the accumulation of plaques that lead to cardiovascular disease.  With cancer, aging white blood cells become less efficient at dealing with abnormal growths (cancer cells).  If exercise helps white blood cells by preventing the shortening of the telomere, it may explain why it also protects against developing heart disease and cancer. 

Do you have to be a marathon runner to prevent telomere shortening?  Researchers don't know the answer yet but previous research has shown that even moderate activity benefits the telomeres.  The best advice? Exercise as much as you can for your age and fitness level.  Any amount of exercise helps you live a longer, healthier life.