A lifestyle with lots of intensive physical activity lengthens your lifespan. All studies agree on this. But according to a Finnish study, soon to be published in Experimental Gerontology, running and cycling are as bad for the speed at which you age as living like a couch potato.
If you're like us and want to live to be 120 [admittedly an ambitious goal, but it keeps us off the street], you have to be prepared for a number of obstacles. The first is that of cardiovascular problems. Cardiovascular disease used to cost many people in their forties, fifties and sixties their lives. We use the past tense, as anti-coagulants and statins have reduced the heart attack obstacle.
After that comes the cancer hurdle. Cancer strikes mainly between the sixtieth and eightieth year of life. Despite medical advances, cancer is still a considerable obstacle to long life.
The next obstacle is wear and tear. Tissues age because cells can no longer divide and start to show defects. The results are weaker muscles, brittle bones and reduced cognitive functioning.
The advance of fundamental molecular aging is measured by looking at the telomeres in our DNA. Telomeres are located at the ends of the chromosomes. The longer they are, the more often your cells can still continue to divide.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki will soon publish the results of a study in which they followed 287 men from 1974 to 2003. The average age of the subjects in 1974 was 47. The researchers were able to divide the men into three groups: non-active, moderately active and highly active. The men didn't change their pattern of activity as they aged.
The moderately active men walked, cycled, gardened, bowled and fished. The highly active men ran or cycled. The publication makes no mention of strength sports or fitness.
In 2003 the researchers took blood samples from the subjects, extracted immune cells from the blood and measured the length of the telomeres. They discovered that the group that did moderately intensive activity had longer telomeres than the other groups. So activities like walking and gardening might delay your molecular aging, but more intensive forms of exercise don't.
The Finnish study is not unique. In 2008 sports scientists at the University of Maryland, for example, published a study [Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Oct; 40(10): 1764-71.] from which we got the figure below. It shows the relationship between the energy that 50–70-year-olds (male and female) burned by doing physical exercise and their telomere length.
The effects the researchers uncovered were small, but for argument's sake we assume that intensive physical exercise wears telomeres down faster than moderate activity. So does that mean life extenders don't need to do sports?
Yes they do. Research has shown that intensive physical exercise protects our genetic material. In some studies exercise comes out more effective than caloric restriction. That explains why physical exercise offers protection against cancer.
Intensive exercise also reduces the chance of heart attacks. So, even though doing sports may not delay molecular aging at telomere level, it does help you with the heart attack and cancer hurdles. The net effect on life expectancy is therefore positive.
And what would happen to telomere length if you combined sport with a diet containing a high level of protective substances? Or a stress-less lifestyle? Or a low-carb diet that is high in healthy fatty acids? Or with supplements like Phlebodium? Or...
Experimental Gerontology (2012), doi: 10.1016/j.exger.2012.02.003.