Exercising regularly and adopting a healthy diet are great ways to boost your overall health and help you to live longer, but scientists don’t completely understand how. Looking into this, one recent study found these lifestyle changes could be having dramatic effects at a genetic level—by increasing a crucial segment of your chromosomes.
Telemores are little caps on our chromosomes which work to protect the genetic material in cells. As we age, our telemores get shorter. This latest research published in The Lancet journal shows that not only do our telemores shrink with poor lifestyle choices, but that they can actually grow longer when we take care of ourselves.
Dean Ornish, the study’s lead author from the University of California, San Francisco, says things like smoking, poor diet, and emotional stress are all associated with shorter telemores and chronic disease. In essence, these bad habits lead to an early grave, as countless studies have shown.
For the study, Ornish separated men into two groups—one group which did nothing unusual and the other who adopted rigorous changes in diet, exercise, and stress reduction.
“These included a whole-foods, low-fat, plant-based diet that’s also low in refined carbohydrates,” Ornish says. “Walking for a half an hour a day. Doing various stress management techniques, including yoga and meditation, for an hour a day. And spending more time with their loved ones, including friends and family.”
After five years of this strict regimen of walking 30 minutes each day, eating a whole-foods and plant-based diet, and practicing yoga and meditation, the group lengthened their telemores by 10%. Of those who didn’t make any changes, the telemores shortened 3%.
“If your telomeres get longer, then your life is probably going to get longer and you’re going to have a lower risk of developing a wide variety of conditions,” explains Ornish. “And since it’s the same lifestyle intervention that we’ve found could actually not only prevent but even reverse the most common chronic diseases, like heart disease, early-stage prostate cancer, type II diabetes, etc., it makes sense.”
Critics of the study say it was too small to make sweeping conclusions and that more research is needed. True, the study was small—only involving 35 men total—but the basic link between health and telemore length is becoming more undeniable.
Dr. Nir Barzilai of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in NYC has an interesting point, however, questioning what it all means. In his research, he has found centenarians have longer telemores than 85-year olds.
“At the end of the day, this hasn’t stopped any argument,” Barzilai says. “Either you’re healthy, so you have longer telomeres, or you have longer telomeres and that’s why you’re healthy. You can pick and choose what you believe in and make an argument.”