Cellular effects of exercise

I just came across a news report on the Times Online website by Nigel Hawkes, entitled, Exercise really can make you younger, study shows. A team from King’s College London looked at telomeres, a section of repeating DNA at the end of chromosomes, in twins to judge how exercise affected them. Telomeres protect the end of chromosomes, and they shorten over our lives (however, long telomeres may increase the likelihood of cancer, so there’s a trade-off between cancer susceptibility and aging). A study in 2002 even showed that telomere length could be used in forensic anthropology to tell the age of remains. The researchers used questionnaires, but they also looked at data from twin studies, to try to isolate the effects of exercise, controlling for BMI, smoking, diet, and even genetic inheritance (hence, the twins).

The difference could be pretty significant. Dr Lynn Cherkas from King’s College explained: ‘Overall, the difference in telomere length between the most active subjects and the inactive subjects corresponds to around nine years of ageing.’ According to the researchers, their results ‘show that adults who partake in regular physical activity are biologically younger than sedentary individuals.

‘The only reason I point out the research on the Neuroanthropology blog is that here we have another cellular-level mechanism that profoundly affects very basic body functioning that can be manipulated by individuals, behaviour, cultural ideals, social fads, and even moral panics. The amount of exercise we get affects the speed at which our cells age; but the amount of exercise we get is, in turn, affected by a whole range of things, from changing policy and budget concerns at schools, to safety concerns about transportation, housing patterns, leisure activities, public health campaigns… In other words, we have a wonderful example in the current discussion of exercise, and the effects of exercise on our telomeres, of a way that sociological-scale phenomena might affect very microscopic-scale qualities of the human body. The shape of our DNA is not just a cause of our physiology, but also an effect of our physical activity.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States, and look forward to a new project in New Zealand. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-edited several books, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

3 thoughts on “Cellular effects of exercise

  1. Great example, Greg. It brought to mind an article I recently read on “Four health changes can prolong life 14 years.” Those health changes are: exercise, drink moderately, don’t smoke, and eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Not smoking, followed by eating fruits and vegetables, had the largest effect. (Do our Moms always have to be right?) The main impact of these four factors, according to the study, is that someone between the ages of 45-79 who did all these four things had the same risk of dying as someone 14 years younger who did none of them. Put differently, these are all lifestyle issues, and the biological impact in terms of mortality is dramatic!
    Here’s the news article: http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080108/hl_nm/longevity_lifestyle_dc

  2. Here’s another article on living a long life, based on research among elderly men: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/19/health/19agin.html

    Here’s the main point: “Five behaviors in elderly men are associated not only with living into extreme old age, a new study has found, but also with good health and independent functioning. The behaviors are abstaining from smoking, weight management, blood pressure control, regular exercise and avoiding diabetes. The study reports that all are significantly correlated with healthy survival after 90.”

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