I came across a recent column in the Baltimore Sun penned by five-time Olympic speed-skating legend Eric Heiden. In “Exercise: The Anti-Aging Shield,” Heiden–now an orthopedic surgeon–writes about how exercise affects telomeres, which are tiny pieces of DNA that protect chromosomes. Scientists have long suspected that short telomeres are associated with heart disease, diabetes, and early death.
According to recent research at the University of California in San Francisco, exercise lowers stress, which in turn preserves telomere length. (Telomeres are the red bits in the photo on the right.) In essence, exercise prevents cells from aging due to stress. And you don’t need to put in an Olympian effort: Vigorous physical activity for a total of 42 minutes over a three-day period is plenty, the researchers say. You have to keep it up, week in and week out, over a lifetime. Still, says Heiden, this is the first study to show definitively that exercise is linked to longer telomeres.
As is the case with anything related to anti-aging, though, at least one company is trying to give people an easy way out. When I was researching my book, I met Noel Patton, founder of TA Sciences, a New York company that sells an herbal supplement called TA-65. Patton believes TA-65 lengthens telomeres, and when I met him, he was busy recruiting people to try it as part of his “Patton Protocol”–which costs $25,000 a year. This despite the fact that he has little scientific proof that the supplement, derived from the Chinese herb astragalus, affects telomere length at all.
Exercise, on the other hand, has been proven time and again to have remarkable anti-aging properties. A study by the Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas found that death rates plummeted among people who started taking half-hour walks a few times a week. Men who became fit decreased their risk of dying of any disease by a staggering 44%.
Yet exercise is still among the hardest chores to get Americans to do. A 2009 Gallup survey found that only one in four Americans were willing to get off their butts and exercise for a scant half-hour, five or more days a week.
It’s not as if moderate exercise is that difficult. Gardening counts, as does taking the stairs instead of the elevator. If the UCSF research proves true, all of that will help lengthen your telomeres and possibly extend your life. I got a dog and started walking between 40 minutes and an hour a day, mixing high-speed and low-speed walking. I lost 10 pounds without really intending to, and my HDL (the “good” cholesterol) went up. My primary care doctor recently told me I don’t really need to worry about doing other sorts of exercise–the dog is plenty.
One thing is certain: My dog costs me a lot less than $25,000 a year, and she’s much cuter than a bottle of TA-65.