See the photo above? That’s Ernestine Shepherd (photo credit: lorna-harvey.com), 80 years old and declared the oldest female bodybuilder on the planet by the Guinness Book of World Records. Nothing about Ernestine looks 80, those biceps for starters. Unfortunately, in a day where hectic lifestyles are the norm, our bodies take quite a beating. If you feel stressed, tired and worn out, chances are, your body will age prematurely. But don’t despair, your body is a remarkable organism and through a little-known compound we all possess you can still drink from the fountain of youth. It’s time we learned about telomeres.
Telomeres (tel-uh-meers) are small protective compounds that sit at the end of each strand of our DNA and control cellular aging. A shorter telomere accelerates aging whilst a longer one has the opposite effect. So the key to eternal youth is keeping those telomeres nice and long. The question is, how?
Before I answer that, a few facts
Telomeres get shorter each time a cell replenishes itself which happens constantly throughout our lives as we get older. Oxidative stress, inflammation, and other metabolic processes also erode telomeres, eventually leaving the cells chromosomes unprotected. This causes our cells to age and stop functioning properly. Telomeres are truly the aging clock in every cell.
Okay, so how am I meant to keep my telomeres nice and long?
Outside of freezing yourself in a giant tank, factors such as stress, smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and a poor diet are known to shorten telomeres. If you’re reading this over a slice of pizza, you may want to rethink that.
Instead, the secret sauce that has been shown to increase the length of our telomeres is weight training.
Weight training and its effects on telomere length
The benefits of aerobic activity for well-being and mortality are well established. Less documented is the relationship between weight training and longevity. However, in the first of its kind, a recent study by Penn State College of Medicine, observed weightlifters over fifteen years to offer some insight. What you are about to read may surprise you.
Researchers found that older adults who strength trained at least twice a week had a whopping 46% lower chance of death for any reason, than those who did not. They also had 41% less chance of cardiac death and 19% lower odds of dying from cancer. In other words, you cut your chance of premature death by almost 50% through lifting weights.
Another study by scientists at Kings College London, concluded that telomere length does, in fact, decrease with age, but women and men who are physically active, retained longer telomeres than those who were sedentary, even after adjusting for age, weight, disease, socioeconomic status and smoking. What is more, subjects who spent more than 3 hours each week in vigorous physical activity (such as lifting weights) had longer telomeres than subjects 10 years younger, who exercised less than 16 minutes a week. This difference suggests that inactive subjects may be biologically older by 10 years.
So what type of weight training should you be doing? Clue: Not Arnold’s
Weight training is synonymous with bodybuilders like Mr. Schwarzenegger. However, the Terminator’s style of training is not the best approach for longevity. Bodybuilding involves lighter weights, a high number of repetitions and slower movement. The best form of weight training to keep your telomeres long was found to be powerlifting: lower repetitions with a heavier weight, requiring greater force output. Force requires the body to recruit fast twitch muscle fibers. In a 2008 study, scientists at Sweden’s Orebro University found that the telomeres of powerlifters were significantly higher than those of healthy individuals who did not perform any weight training.
Incase you are wondering why Ernestine Shepherd looks so good through bodybuilding, there are factors beyond her workouts that play a role. She maintains a very clean diet, practices a consistent routine and performs other forms of exercise too. Secondly, it is unreasonable to draw any conclusions; good or bad from one individual.
Time to wrap things up, head to the gym and start lifting heavy! Lengthening your telomeres leads to a longer, healthier life, and the weight room it seems is the place to be. Happy lifting!
As always, pushing for health.
DISCLAIMER: This post does not constitute advice. It is a summary of scientifically backed findings. If you are new to weight training, do not perform any weight bearing exercise without the supervision of a certified personal trainer.