If you’re like many visitors to our ProSource website, cardio probably isn’t your favorite thing. Especially the plodding, interminable, steady-state variety.
And yet we know it's essential for enhanced heart health, for increased lung capacity, and for overall wellness. Nobody wants to be that person who can bench press 240 lbs in sets of 12, but gets winded climbing a flight of stairs.
So we lace up our sneakers, put our headphones on, and endure a brief eternity of distance running or sprints or bicycling. It's good for us, we tell ourselves.
Now comes news that cardio exercise may be even better for us than we expected. Specifically, it may offer unique anti-aging benefits. To explain how this might be, we'll first have to delve into the workings of the cell.
Telomeres and Cell Protection
Young, healthy cells are constantly defending themselves against stress, swiftly repairing any damage that does occur, and dividing to create new cells. Researchers are discovering that much of this unending skirmish takes place at the tips of our chromosomes, which are studded with tiny strands of matter called telomeres.
Telomeres protect our DNA from damage during cell division. The longer these telomeres are, the better they function. Unfortunately, these telomeres shorten with age, until they no longer protect cellular DNA and the cell becomes inactive and dies.
Further study, however, has revealed that telomere vitality is not a one-way street. They can grow longer as well as shorter. What causes this elongation of telomeres? Exercise. And not just any exercise, but specifically steady-state endurance training, like running. Scientists determined this over a decade ago by examining the telomere length of middle-aged competitive runners, which were as long as those of much younger people.
Correlation does not prove causation though, so more study was needed. Recently such a study was undertaken and has now generated some surprising results.
The Effects of Endurance Exercise on Telomere Activity
In a study published in the European Heart Journal in 2019, researchers sought to explore the effects of endurance training, interval training, and resistance training on telomerase activity and telomere length. To do so, they selected 124 previously inactive individuals and randomized them into four groups: a non-exercise control group, an aerobic endurance group (running), a high-intensity interval training group, and a resistance training group (weight lifting), with training consisting of three 45-minute sessions per week.
Before the training began, researchers measured each subject’s aerobic fitness, drew blood to measure telomere length in white blood cells, and examined blood markers of the amount and activity of each person’s telomerase, an enzyme that is known to influence telomere length. After six months, the subjects were examined again.
Measurements revealed that telomerase activity in white blood cells was up-regulated by two- to three-fold in both endurance exercise groups (endurance and interval training), but not at all in the resistance training group. Similarly, telomere length also increased significantly in the two endurance groups but not in the resistance training group. In fact, the telomeres in the resistance training group were similar to those found in the control group, which remained about the same or, in some instances, shortened during the six months.
The researchers concluded that "endurance training and interval training, but not resistance training, increased telomerase activity and telomere length, which are important for cellular senescence, regenerative capacity, and thus, healthy aging."
Although more study is needed in this area, this particular investigation suggests that going the distance in cardio endurance training has more to offer than a stronger heart and deeper lungs. It will also help you go the distance toward a healthier, more vital life as you age.
We should also note this for those of you who prefer pumping iron to logging miles: Although resistance training appears to have no effect on telomere length, lifting weights clearly provides essential anti-aging benefits by supporting the functional strength and work output capacity critical to aging with enhanced vitality and overall wellness.
Christian M Werner, Anne Hecksteden, Arne Morsch, Joachim Zundler, Melissa Wegmann, Jürgen Kratzsch, Joachim Thiery, Mathias Hohl, Jörg Thomas Bittenbring, Frank Neumann, Michael Böhm, Tim Meyer, Ulrich Laufs. Differential effects of endurance, interval, and resistance training on telomerase activity and telomere length in a randomized, controlled study. Eur Heart J. 2019 Jan 1;40(1):34-46.
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