How Exercise May Just Save Your Genes

…and your life.  Your genes hold the secret code of YOU.  We often think of our genes as a constant, unchanging part of our physiology, but they actually do change over time.  When exposed to various environmental factors, genes may become mutated or their function may get turned on or off.  Your genes are made of DNA, and damage to that DNA causes these changes which can lead to many bad things—like cancer and disease.

Luckily our bodies are pretty smart (a shout out to evolution!).  Your body protects your DNA with telomeres. Telo-what?  Let me explain.  Your genes are in a long strand of DNA called a chromosome.  Imagine a chromosome is a shoelace.  Telomeres are like the little plastic thingys at the end of your shoelaces.  Telomeres cluster at the end of your chromosomes to protect the chromosome from fraying and getting chewed away during cell division which is happening constantly.  Chewing into the DNA is not good—it can cause cell death or cause the cell to divide uncontrollably which is cancer.  Without telomeres, our genes (and our health) are in big trouble.

The length of our little shoelace covers (i.e., telomeres) is a proxy of biological aging.  Want to know how old you really are?  Check out your telomeres.  Telomeres inevitably shorten with age, which is one reason why rates of cancers rise with age—more time for genetic damage to occur.  Shortened telomere length is also associated with cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, hypertension, aneurysm, and heart failure (Kraus et al 2011). Hearing all of this, I’m thinking I want some looooong telomeres!  But how do I preserve these damn things that I didn’t even know existed until now?!

The American College of Sports Medicine says that we should all be getting 30-60 minutes of exercise on 5 days a week.  If you want to preserve the length of your telomeres, the health of your genes, your cells, and extend your life, do exactly as they say.  Exercise.  Daily.

One piece of evidence for the impact of exercise on telomere length comes from a recent study out of the University of California San Francisco which found that people who are inactive have shorter telomeres than people who are very active (Krauss et al 2011).  But why?  What does exercise do exactly to protect our genes?  We don’t entirely know.  One hypothesis which is now supported by some evidence, is that exercise buffers the damaging impact of stress.  Psychological stress leads to shortened telomeres, thus a chronically stressful lifestyle is likely to be gradually degrading the health of your genes.  This is certainly a case for trying to chill out, but get this.  A recent study showed that among non-exercisers, stress was associated with a 15-fold chance of having shortened telomeres, but among vigorous exercisers (i.e., people who meet the public health recommendation for exercise), no association was found between stress and telomere length (Puterman et al 2010).  What this means is that exercise is your secret trap door to escaping the effects of stress on your health.

Exercise doesn’t just help us regulate our weight, get our blood pressure down, and put us in a better mood.  Exercise is literally therapy at the cellular level.

Reason to exercise #1000:  To save your life.

I can’t think of a better reason to exercise than that.


Thank you for consultation on this post goes to Dr. Paul Jasper, a molecular biologist at RES group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Puterman, E. and colleagues (2010). The power of exercise:  Buffering the effect of stress on telomere length. Plos One, 5(5).

Krauss, J. and colleagues (2011). Physical fitness and telomere length in patients with coronary heart disease:  Findings from the Heart and Soul Study. Plos One, 6(11).

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  1. Mbfgmike says:

    Great post Sherry! Very interesting and informative. You made a complex subject understandable, wish more people in your field did that. I would write more, but I have to go now and run, to stop my telomeres from shorting.

  2. Susan Bakke says:

    ahh I have heard about our telomeres..they are quite the shoelaces..great post as always..your blogs are always so informative, you get to the truth of the matter!! keep on moving and don’t every stop!!!

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