DNA Researchers Pinpoint the Type of Exercise That Could Extend Life

A new discovery brings us a step closer to an anti-aging workout.

In the ongoing quest to live forever, some turn to supplements, fad diets, and weird experiments on worms. But perhaps the most well-studied part of anti-aging is the role of telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that naturally get shorter as we get older. A new study from Germany suggests that one specific type of exercise may be the key to keeping them long.

As we age, telomeres shorten naturally, but there are some things we can do to slow, or even, in small part, reverse that process. For the new study in the European Heart Journal, scientists recruited 164 volunteers in Leipzig, Germany, and made them work out. Through this study, co-author and cardiologist Ulrich Laufs, Ph.D., showed that endurance exercises reversed the shortening of telomeres.

Strangely, resistance workouts, like weightlifting, didn’t.

“The main finding of this controlled, randomized, supervised six months study is that endurance training compared to baseline and to the control group increased telomerase activity and telomere length which are both important for cellular senescence, regenerative capacity and thus, healthy aging,” Laufs tells Inverse.

running anti-aging
Even light running three times per week increased telomere length in these study participants 

Participants in the study were separated into four groups: a control group, an easy “walking/running” group, an interval training group (who did four high-intensity sprints with a warm-up and a cool-down), and a group that did 45 minutes of lifting (a circuit of eight exercises on machines: back extension, crunches, pulldowns, seated rows, seated leg curl, seated leg extension, seated chest press, and lying leg press).

Over 26 weeks, the participants performed their workout of choice three times per week. At the end of six months, their blood was analyzed for the activity of an enzyme called telomerase — which lengthens the ends of telomeres with DNA building blocks. Telomerase is a cell’s friend in this case, since once a telomere completely depletes, the cell eventually dies.

“With each division of a cell the telomeres become shorter,” Laufs says. “This is an important molecular mechanism of aging. Once telomeres have reached a critical shortness the cell undergoes senescence and eventually cell death.”

telomere length anti aging
Endurance workouts increased telomerase activity, the enzyme that helps lengthen telomeres 

In an admittedly small follow-up study, the team narrowed the groups down to 15 runners and 10 non-runners to measure the effects of telomerase activity immediately after exercise. They found that 45 minutes of continuous running corresponded with a spike in telomerase activity, but the same could not be said for 45 minutes of lifting.

Laufs can’t fully explain why telomerase activity spikes with endurance exercise and doesn’t in resistance exercise, though he does have an early hypothesis. He explains that endurance exercises, even light ones, cause blood vessels to contract. That, in turn, corresponds with the release of nitric oxide, a molecule that has been shown to increase telomerase activity, though the studies are still contentious.

“The differences between endurance and resistance training are likely to be related to the higher rate of (laminar) vascular shear stress which regulates the nitric oxide system,” he suggests. “This concept has been established in experimental / animal models that need to be proven in humans.”

While the study doesn’t present quite enough evidence to completely write off resistance exercise for anti-aging, Ulrich adds that the important takeaway is that lifting probably isn’t a good replacement for endurance exercise, if telomere lengthening is the goal. The good news is at least you don’t have to run hard: If his results hold up, a light jog three times a week should suffice.