The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

4 Lifestyle Choices That Will Keep You Young

Simple lifestyle changes lengthen telomeres and slow the aging process.

A pilot study released in September 2013 shows for the first time that changes in diet, exercise, stress management and social support may result in longer telomeres, the parts of chromosomes that affect aging. The study was published online in The Lancet Oncology.

The study was conducted by scientists at UC San Francisco and the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, a nonprofit public research institute in Sausalito, California that investigates the effect of diet and lifestyle choices on health and disease. The researchers say they hope the results will inspire larger trials to test the validity of the findings.

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This study is the first controlled trial to show that lifestyle changes might lengthen telomeres over time. "This was a breakthrough finding that needs to be confirmed by larger studies," said co-senior author Peter R. Carroll, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the UCSF Department of Urology. "Telomere shortening increases the risk of a wide variety of chronic diseases," Carroll said. "We believe that increases in telomere length may help to prevent these conditions and perhaps even lengthen lifespan."

Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that affect how quickly cells age. They are combinations of DNA and protein help them remain stable by protecting the ends of chromosomes. As telomeres become shorter, their structural integrity weakens, which causes cells to age and die younger.

In recent years, shorter telomeres have become associated with a broad range of aging-related diseases, including many forms of cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes. If you'd like to read more about telomeres as linked to depression please check out my Pyschology Today blog: "Untreated Depression Linked to Telomeres, Aging, and Disease."

4 Simple Lifestyle Choices Can Change Your Destiny

"Our genes, and our telomeres, are not necessarily our fate," said lead author Dean Ornish, MD, UCSF clinical professor of medicine, and founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute.

"So often people think 'Oh, I have bad genes, there's nothing I can do about it,'" Ornish said. "But these findings indicate that telomeres may lengthen to the degree that people change how they live. Research indicates that longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses and longer life."

For five years, the researchers followed 35 men with localized, early-stage prostate cancer to explore the relationship between comprehensive lifestyle changes, and telomere length and telomerase activity. The new study was designed to determine if the lifestyle changes would affect telomere length and telomerase activity in these men over a longer time period.

4 Lifestyle Choices That Keep You Young

  1. Plant-based diet (high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates)
  2. Moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week)
  3. Stress reduction (gentle yoga-based stretching, mindfulness, breathing, meditation)
  4. Social support network (friends, family, sense of community)

The researchers say the findings may not be limited to men with prostate cancer, and are likely to be relevant to the general population. "We looked at telomeres in the participants' blood, not their prostate tissue," said Ornish.

The new study is a follow up to a similar, three-month pilot investigation in 2008 in which the same participants were asked to follow the same lifestyle program. After three months, the men in the initial study exhibited significantly increased telomerase activity. Telomerase is an enzyme that repairs and lengthens telomeres.

These findings reconfirm the foundation of The Athlete’s Way. In my book, I have a section called “Do You Want to Live Longer and Better?” which focuses on four secrets of longevity. The advice for how to live longer is simple: eat bettermove more, practice mindfulness, and tend-and-befriend.

Since the 1970s people like René Dubos of Rockefeller University and Alexander Leaf of Harvard Medical School have studied the secrets to living longer and happier lives. Time and again these four core tenets of longevity resurface. I would also recommend adding a sense of passion, achieving small and big goals, and an optimistic outlook to your daily mix, but these four are the keystones of longevity.

Conclusion: Simple Lifestyle Changes Will Increase Your Lifespan

Diet, exercise, stress reduction and maintaining a social support network are the keys to longevity. Making simple lifestyle changes keeps every cell in your body younger by lengthening telomeres.

My father died too young. Earlier this week, his sister Kay came to visit me for a couple days. It was the first time Aunt Kay and I had spent quality time together since my father passed away. We reminisced about my dad’s life and how tragic it was that he died too young. My father died of a heart attack. It’s obvious to me that the combination of high-stress, little exercise, poor diet and social isolation all contributed to my father's cardiovascular disease and death.

We all have loved ones who have gotten sick and died due to lifestyle choices. I urge you to make small changes in your daily routine that include stress reduction, social connectivity, physical activity and a healthier diet. Each of us has the power to slow down the aging process at a cellular level and to stay alive longer.  

Please encourage your friends and family to incorporate these 4 lifestyle choices into their daily routines so everybody you love can stay healthy, happy, and alive for as long as possible.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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