Exercise prevents the shortening of telomeres caused by psychological stress. Image courtesy of mikebaird.
New research by Nobel Prize winning UCSF researcher, Elizabeth Blackburn, provides a possible mechanism by which exercise protects against stress-related chromosome aging.
The findings, presented this month at the American Association for Cancer Research 102nd Annual Meeting, were based on earlier research showing that stress accelerates telomere shortening. Telomeres are protective strands of DNA found on the end of chromosomes that protect them from degradation during cell division. Telomere length is associated with cellular health, and is a known marker of cell aging.
Shorter telomeres are associated with cell death and chromosome instability, which can lead to inflammation. In immune cells, short telomeres can predict poorer prognosis in patients with heart disease and cancer.
In a previous study by Blackburn, psychological stress was associated with shorter telomeres in the lymphocytes of caregivers of chronically ill children. This was the first demonstration that telomere length is correlated to perceived stress. In the current study, co-authored by biochemist Jue Lin, telomere length was again associated with stress levels, this time in primary caregivers looking after a family member with dementia. However when the researchers looked at the immune cells in those who exercised, there was no association between stress and telomere length.
Another study, led by Eli Puterman, examined the impact of exercise on the telomeres of healthy women who had been victims of child abuse. In this study those who exercised were protected against the effects of stress on telomere length.
“We saw a relationship between childhood trauma and short telomere length but the relationship seems to go away in people who exercise vigorously at least three times a week,” said Lin in a press release.
Exercise is known to beneficially impact immune function and several other aspects of health. This new research illuminates on one possible mechanism by which physical activity exerts its helpful effects.