By far the most common answer to my question, “Exercising these days?” is “Not enough.” This is usually accompanied by the briefest flicker of melancholy regret, as if by such a confession my patient has permanently abandoned the hopes and dreams of both a svelte body and enviable longevity. “Don’t worry,” I say, “It’s just a temporary glitch. You’ll start up again.” (Nod, nod).
I say this with confidence because our WholeHealth Chicago patients are a different breed.
Take a glance around our waiting room or apothecary to see what a patient population engaged in maintaining good health actually looks like. Even the beginners, perhaps overweight or out of shape, are working on it. The office abounds with new leaves turned over. Prevention is the buzzword and it’s paying off in spades.
Drs. Kelley, Donigan, and I all see the effect of prevention on our relatively tiny number of patients with life-shortening chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, bronchitis/emphysema). And when chronic illness does develop, such as diabetes in a genetically predisposed individual, the number one question I hear is not “What should I be taking?” but rather “What can I do to avoid taking pills for the rest of my life?”
So if one of my patients is ‘fessing up her lack of exercise, it’s most often because some situation (overwork, school, caring for kids or an aging parent) is cutting into her workout time. Now that she’s realized she hasn’t been moving enough, she’ll start up again. It just seems to work that way.
Big news on integrating healthful choices into your life
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about one type of exercise everyone should consider. If you drive to work, just leave the car at home and take public transportation. The walking involved, the stair climbing, standing, and waiting for a bus provide many of the rich benefits of regular exercise.
Today I have something even better.
If you’ve got a sedentary job, all you have to do is stand up. That’s right. During your workday, getting up out of your chair and walking around for a bit triggers the very changes in DNA linked to a long healthy life.
Here’s what happens: Inside the nucleus of your cells, your genes are arranged in twisted, double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes. At the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres, which make it possible for our cells to divide. Telomeres also hold secrets to how we age and whether or not we get cancer. Think of a telomere as the stiff plastic protector tip at the end of a shoelace. Telomeres actually keep the ends of your chromosome from fraying and shortening prematurely.
Each time one of your cells divides, the telomeres get shorter, and when they get too short the cell can’t divide anymore and dies. This shortening process is linked with premature aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death. Uncomfortable as this sounds, telomeres have also been compared to bomb fuses. (As if you didn’t have enough to worry about at night, lying there in the dark, along with ISIS you can now ponder your shrinking telomeres.)
Researchers have discovered that one of the key reasons a healthy life is associated with resistance to disease and impressive longevity is the positive effect lifestyle choices have on telomere length. One small but important study tracking lifestyle and telomere length came up with key steps to take. Believe me, you knew this already:
- Diet High in whole foods, plant-based protein, fruit/veggies, low in fat and refined carbs.
- Exercise Moderate aerobic exercise, walking 30 minutes a day six days a week.
- Stress management Yoga, meditation, quiet reading, and counseling if needed.
- Good social support Good friends, stable relationships.
- Sleep Quality sleep.
Up and at ‘em
But now, and here’s the especially good news, when it comes to exercise, to protect your telomeres you don’t have to do all that much. All you have to do is get up off your duff!
A fascinating study from Sweden published last week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine sought to determine how much exercise was needed to protect telomere length. Previous research had shown that people who exercise have longer telomeres as well as measurable reductions in risk factors (including high blood pressure and body fat percentage). But the question was whether exercise itself prevented telomere shortening or, conversely, whether being especially sedentary prematurely shortened telomeres.
Researchers already knew that people who spend more time sitting without any breaks have shorter lives, regardless of whether or not they also exercised regularly. This new study tracked telomere length over six months in a group of volunteers wearing pedometers to measure physical activity. Interestingly, telomere length was maintained not only among the regular exercisers, but also among the non-exercisers who avoided being sedentary (similar to taking public transportation being as healthful as biking to work).
Conclusion: prolonged sedentary activity shortens telomeres.
The suggestion of the lead researcher is basically this: If you have a sedentary job (just about everyone seems to these days), take a break at least every 20-30 minutes and get up and walk around for one or two minutes. Wear an “Ask my about My Long Telomeres” or “Happiness Is A Long, Hard Telomere” button. Point to it every time you exit your workplace or classroom. (I’m wearing mine next to my “Ask Me About My Vow of Silence” button).
You won’t enjoy all the benefits of regular vigorous exercise, but you’ll stop your frayed and pathetically short telomeres from killing you off too soon.
David Edelberg, MD