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What Kind of Exercise is Best for Telomere Health?

telomeres photoThere has been a lot of focus on “Long slow distance” (LSD) exercise and telomere health.  I have oft quoted the “German Runners Study” which was actually a paper presentation and not a fully published work at the time that it got so much press.  That study showed that men who ran at high levels (50 miles a week) had telomere length comparable to 25-year-olds.  It did not, however, address what other exercises they were doing, their supplementation habits, their family genetics and their overall lifestyles. More importantly it did not look at what their actual favorite distance was. If you run everyday, 50 miles a week boils down to about 6.7 miles a day.  Five days a week and you are at 10 miles a run.  These are not marathons, nor are they marathon training distances in most cases. Yet every marathon blog on the planet was saying “SEE! Marathons can make you live longer!” In point of fact, serious long term high level marathon training doesn’t even start until you hit about 70 miles a week and there is an association with cardiac dilatation, valvular dysfunction and potentially fatal cardiac arrhythmias, probably causing some of the famous “runners deaths” we read about from time to time. By the way, this is also seen in endurance cycling. I remind you, I have run ultra-marathons, which are often 3x marathon distance, but I have not done that my whole life and currently limit myself to 6 miles a run, maximum.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, telomere length and weight training have not been adequately evaluated with a large well controlled study. There is, however, data on grip strength, leg strength and overall power generation and longevity, all of which suggests you need some muscle and especially power (max force x min time = max power) to live long.


Additionally, there is a published study showing the benefits of “interval style” training for telomerase activation and telomere health.

For most people I still like this for getting in shape. In my practice, the LSD preselects out “people who can take it” because the only ones left standing are those with the genetics (and joints!) to tolerate the LSD. In addition, two other things to consider: 1) People will want to generalize this to “fit” their sport. I guarantee you this will wind up on marathon blogs as proof of the “healthiness” of running marathons or some other thing. It will also wind up on gym blogs as proof that “exercise is good for longevity and come buy a membership to our gym!” This study was about cross country skiing and while it was endurance, it is a very different exercise than long distance running. Remember as you get out your Dr Dave Voodoo dolls that I am an ultra-runner and am telling you I do not think it is healthy for most! This is one reason I take high dose TA-65! 2) The study does not address causality and we have no way of knowing that the long distance skiers do not do a lot of other healthy things that essentially preselect for longer telomeres and a better healthspan.  Finally, the fastest way to improve your cardiac fitness and VO2 max is interval-style training. This will help any LSD work you do if you do that because, contrary to popular belief, LSD does not raise VO2 max much at all! I run ultras because I like what it does for my brain and I enjoy the solitude of moving through miles of territory most people avoid – not because it is good for my telomeres!  Take your fish oil, Take TA-65 if you can and have a rigorous regular exercise routine that includes mobility, strength and endurance. And keep your eyes open for my two books that should come out towards the end of this year.

Thanks to Andy Newman for asking this question!

I’ve also written extensively on lengthening your telomeres with your food choices as well as natural telomerase activators outside of just exercise. Remember good health takes a broad spectrum of attention, don’t just focus on lengthing your telomeres with exercise, get the complete picture.



P.S. – I have addressed this question before to Mr. S Kumar who was kind enough to read it and change his evaluation of my book on Amazon based on this reply.

Hi, thanks for your comment and concerns. Let me say up front that I highly doubt you are going to change your recommendation no matter what I say but there is justification and a citation below for interval training. I can find none for marathon running and telomere length but welcome the citation if you have it.

I think we have to be careful about too much interpretation of the data on some of these studies. For instance, if you read the most quoted “German Runners Study” you will find most of the elderly (51 is elderly!?) runners were not marathon runners specifically. This has been reported differently on web sites and blogs to include marathoners, half-marathoners, triathletes and even used to justify weight training. They were in fact a mixed group of athletes who ran an average of 50 miles a week for the bulk of their adult lives but many were not marathoners. As a matter of fact, the word “marathon” is not mentioned in the study at all. In addition, there is a difference between WBC telomere length and skeletal muscle telomere length and the results are often opposite. (See Below)
I have included some references and posts below that may point you to a different conclusion or to at least be open to other options.
If you are looking for a randomized, double-blinded, double dummy, placebo, gold standard, you will not find it for any exercise or diet or meditation in humans.
Also, one needs to be careful about studies that use only TRAP assays for telomerase as a surrogate for lengthening telomeres, as this is not always the case.
Thus, when one writes a book on cutting edge topics, sometimes one has to interpret based on their own experiences and findings. Or we could simply have waited another 25 years to write the book, but even then much of this will remain unproven in the randomized, double-blinded, double dummy, placebo, gold standard sense, since those studies are extremely expensive and unaffordable for anyone but drug companies who do not stand to gain from the answers to the above questions.
The logic behind choosing interval training for much of the programs in the book is based on the following AND the information included below.
1) VO2 max can be trained up fast with interval training and this (V02 max) correlates with mean telomere length. You may be familiar with the study where experienced interval-trained individuals who were non-runners trained for 12 weeks for a 10K distance and outperformed people who had been running 10K’s for a long time. Exclusively training distance, as so many runners do, is not the best way to achieve total cardiovascular fitness. Also, if done properly, interval training can be done at high intensity with low trauma (deep water pool sprints) allowing even injured people to do it.
2) This was a book for ‘everyman and everywoman’, not specifically athletes or runners. This means the program had to be doable for the average person in terms of time commitment and results. Giving the average non-runner a running program did not fit the goals of the book. Nor would it achieve the results people are looking for, including us.
3) Go to any running club and you will find a large volume of chronically injured runners there. I am a sometime marathoner and ultra-marathoner as well, and my experiences have taught me this is not the healthiest thing to do from a musculoskeletal standpoint.

Again, see #1 with regards to injury.
4) There is a study below on interval training but I could not find any on marathon runners except with regards to shorter telomere lengths and overtraining syndromes.
5) I am an Internist/anti-aging doc and, while I am not a basic science researcher, I have checked telomere lengths in my athletic clients in the past and I have found the MTL to be longer in general in the cross trained individuals than people who just run. Again, this is not a RDBC study by any means but a clinical impression which should be worth something to a reader.
6) Now that the Life Length assay is available, we have a much better tool to assess these findings but don’t hold your breath for any of the above studies to be repeated any time soon. Again, funding is everything in science.
I think in terms of bang for buck, time wise and damage wise, interval training is a great place to start for most people since the oxidative stress is far less even though the intensity is far higher.
It is important to actually read studies and not just abstracts, blogs, online/newspaper articles because they often get the facts wrong. Since the “german runners study” I have seen that very article used to justify all different forms of exercise from yoga to Pilates to dancercise, etc. That is clearly not what it says. In addition, that article did not control for the most important confounding variables such as what else do people who run 50 miles a week do for their health/telomeres that sedentary people do not do – sleep, other training, supplements, maintaining body weight, etc. As such it is an observational study and does not establish causality. Then again, very few studies do on this or any other topic – so again, clinical acumen/experience is the surrogate.
I would love to see more research done here and if you have 5 million dollars to donate I will see it gets put to good use and answers these questions definitively!

Finally, let me say that for a good deal of the last 10 years I have run long and ultra-long distances. No one would be happier if long distance running were the ultimate telomere life preserver. But at this moment we can’t say that unless you know of studies I do not. I remain open to be educated.


Dr Dave


May 28, 2010
Bursts of Vigorous Activity Appear to Be a ‘Stress-Buffer’
FRIDAY, May 28 (HealthDay News) — Short bouts of vigorous exercise (interval training) can go a long way to reduce the impact stress has on cell aging, new research reveals.
Vigorous physical activity amounting to as little as 14 minutes daily, three day per week would suffice for the protective effect to kick in, according to findings published online in the May 26 issue of PLoS ONE.
The apparent benefit reflects exercise’s effect on the length of tiny pieces of DNA known as telomeres. These telomeres operate, in effect, like molecular shoelace tips that hold everything together to keep genes and chromosomes stable.
Researchers believe that telomeres tend to shorten over time in reaction to stress, leading to a rising risk for heart disease, diabetes and even death. However, exercise, it seems, might slow down or even halt this shortening process.
“Telomere length is increasingly considered a biological marker of the accumulated wear-and-tear of living, integrating genetic influences, lifestyle behaviors and stress,” study co-author Elissa Epel, an associate professor in the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) department of psychiatry, said in a news release. “Even a moderate amount of vigorous exercise appears to provide a critical amount of protection for the telomeres.”
Appreciation for how telomeres function and how stress might affect their length stems from previous Nobel-prize winning work conducted by UCSF researchers. Prior studies have also suggested that exercise is in some way associated with longer telomere length.
The current effort, however, is the first to identify exercise as a potential “stress-buffer” that can actually stop telomeres from shortening in the first place.
The team found that those women who were experiencing high levels of stress but were deemed “active” did not have shorter telomeres, whereas similarly stressed participants deemed “inactive” did.
Going forward, the study authors said that more research incorporating larger patient samples need to be conducted to confirm the findings and arrive at definitive recommendations for how much exercise might be needed to derive such cellular protection.
Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 May;109(2):323-30. Epub 2010 Jan 26.
Skeletal muscle telomere length in healthy, experienced, endurance runners.
Rae DE, Vignaud A, Butler-Browne GS, Thornell LE, Sinclair-Smith C, Derman EW, Lambert MI, Collins M.
UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa. [email protected]
Measuring the DNA telomere length of skeletal muscle in experienced endurance runners may contribute to our understanding of the effects of chronic exposure to endurance exercise on skeletal muscle. This study compared the minimum terminal restriction fragment (TRF) length in the vastus lateralis muscle of 18 experienced endurance runners (mean age: 42 +/- 7 years) to those of 19 sedentary individuals (mean age: 39 +/- 10 years). The runners had covered almost 50,000 km in training and racing over 15 years. Minimum TRF lengths measured in the muscle of both groups were similar (P = 0.805) and within the normal range. Minimum TRF length in the runners, however, was inversely related to their years spent running(r = -0.63, P = 0.007) and hours spent training (r = -0.52, P = 0.035). Therefore, since exposure to endurance running may influence minimum TRFlength, and by implication, the proliferative potential of the satellite cells, chronic endurance running may be seen as a stressor to skeletal muscle.

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Sep;35(9):1524-8.
Athletes with exercise-associated fatigue have abnormally short muscle DNA telomeres.
Collins M, Renault V, Grobler LA, St Clair Gibson A, Lambert MI, Wayne Derman E, Butler-Browne GS, Noakes TD, Mouly V.
Department of Human Biology, University of Cape Town, South Africa. [email protected]
Although the beneficial health effects of regular moderate exercise are well established, there is substantial evidence that the heavy training and racing carried out by endurance athletes can cause skeletal muscle damage. This damage is repaired by satellite cells that can undergo a finite number of cell divisions. In this study, we have compared a marker of skeletal muscle regeneration of athletes with exercise-associated chronic fatigue, a condition labeled the “fatigued athlete myopathic syndrome” (FAMS), with healthy asymptomatic age- and mileage-matched control endurance athletes.
Muscle biopsies of the vastus lateralis were obtained from 13 patients diagnosed with FAMS and from 13 healthy control subjects. DNA was extracted from the muscle samples and their telomeric restriction fragment (TRF) or telomere lengths were measured by Southern blot analysis.
All 13 symptomatic athletes reported a progressive decline in athletic performance, decreased ability to tolerate high mileage training, and excessive muscular fatigue during exercise. The minimum value of TRF lengths (4.0 +/- 1.8 kb) measured on the DNA from vastus lateralis biopsies from these athletes were significantly shorter than those from 13 age- and mileage-matched control athletes (5.4 +/- 0.6 kb, P < 0.05). Three of the FAMS patients had extremely short telomeres (1.0 +/- 0.3 kb). The minimum TRF lengths of the remaining 10 symptomatic athletes (4.9 +/- 0.5 kb, P < 0.05) were also significantly shorter that those of the control athletes.
“These findings suggest that skeletal muscle from symptomatic athletes show extensive regeneration which most probably results from more frequent bouts of satellite cell proliferation in response to recurrent training- and racing-induced muscle injury.
The vast majority of research on exercise and telomeres points towards cardiovascular exercise as the key component needed to protect telomeres. It is clear moderate intensity aerobic exercise should be a component of training for telomere health. However, other studies have shown that chronic stress coming from excessive exercise or excessive stress may be the major cause of telomere dysfunction. This may be an issue when you consider chronic exercise such as marathon training, which raises cortisol without the benefit of growth promoting hormones. A brand new study in the journal Hormones (volume 8 #1) has shown that a relative excess of cortisol and insulin compared to the anabolic hormones HGH and testosterone plays a key role in telomere damage.
Shorter more intense exercise does a better job at balancing this hormonal equation, and therefore it may have a central role to play. Researchers studying this issue have also noted shortened telomere length in exercisers and athletes suffering from exercise related fatigue and in long-term competitive endurance runners. The May 2010 issue of the European Journal of Applied physiology showed endurance runners compared to healthy sedentary individuals have telomere lengths inversely proportional to the amount of running they did. In other words, the more mileage they accumulated over the years, the shorter their telomeres. It is interesting to note, even with all the exercise they did, their telomeres were not significantly longer than the sedentary non-exercisers.
This same issue was looked at in a group of competitive power lifters. In the January 2008 issue of Sports and Medicine in Science and Exercise long-term weight lifters were compared to a group of healthy active individual who were not weight lifters. There was no detriment seen in the weight lifting group in terms of telomere length, but they too had no significant advantage over the healthy active controls. However, the vast majority of other studies show exercise does provide an advantage. So what do we make of these results and studies? Exercise is protective to telomeres but excessive exercise may actually be a detriment.”

1 reply
  1. David Sharad
    David Sharad says:

    Exercise and healthy food are very important to improve health and fitness. Go for running, walking, push ups, chair squats, bench press and push ups to make strong muscles and improve physical performance. Eat fresh fruits, vegetables, salads, drink fruit juice and plenty of water that are really good for health and prevent from many diseases.It improve mood, make strong bones and muscles, boost energy, improve heart functions and mental health.
    Tacoma fitness


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