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The secret to ageing well – longer telomeres

Who wants to live to be 100? It now takes a team of seven employees to write congratulations letters from the Queen as the number of centenarians has quadrupled over the last 30 years and is projected to quadruple again over the next 30 years. But ask someone in their 70s or 80s and they will almost certainly say they are not interested in living longer, unless they are healthy.

So we all know the best advice to increase healthspan – don’t smoke, eat a balanced diet, stay active and choose your parents well! 25% of our health is down to genes, but a huge 75% is down to lifestyle.

But is there anything you can do to really change the way you age? Yes indeed, you have the power to bring about changes at molecular level and it’s freely available to all of us.

We all have telomeres, which are the caps at the end of each chromosome which contain a single molecule of DNA, located in the nucleus of a cell. You can think of telomeres like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces – their job is to hold the chromosome in place and stop it from unravelling. As we age, our cells will naturally replicate, regenerating our body’s tissues. When this happens however, the DNA holding our genetic information is copied but the telomere is not. So, when the replicated cell divides and separates from its original cell, the telomere is snipped. Hence, each time the cell replicates and divides, the telomeres get shorter and shorter. This gradual deterioration is known as senescence or ageing.

So how do we keep our ‘shoelaces’ long and healthy? Well one of the best ways is to exercise and to reduce the amount of time we spend sitting down each day. Although all exercise has benefits for healthy hearts, muscles and bones, research has shown that one particular type of exercise has the best results for anti-ageing – interval training.

This simply means you do an exercise in short bursts at higher intensity. So rather than just walk (or jog) at the same speed for 30 minutes, you would introduce 30 seconds of speedy walking (or running) several times during your workout. It works for swimming, cycling and rowing too – choose something you enjoy and build up gradually.

It might sound easy, but during the short bursts you need to push yourself so that after 30 seconds you are noticeably out of breath, your heart is pumping and you’re glad to slow back down to recover.

The beauty of this type of training is that it’s really effective and is so quick to do. Even 10 minutes of aerobic activity with three sets of 30 seconds at high intensity will make a difference. Let’s take jogging as an example:
• Walk for 2 minutes, gradually building up speed.
• Jog for 1 minute.
• Now run at a speed that is fast for you for 30 seconds.
• Return to a normal jog (or walk) again for 1 minute.
• Repeat the 30 seconds burst with 1 minute recovery, twice more.
• Jog for 1 minute then slow to a walk, finishing off with some simple stretches.

The same pattern can be repeated for any aerobic exercise.

If you are not used to exercise, start with shorter bursts of higher intensity and longer rest periods, for example you can start off with just 10 seconds of higher intensity exercise followed by 50 seconds or active rest such as walking. You should start to see improvements pretty quickly and that’s when you need to step it up a notch again. As soon as an exercise becomes easy, it’s a sign that you need to progress as your body will adapt. You can increase the intensity of the bursts, reduce the rest period, extend the time or the number of repetitions to make it harder.

You will notice how you improve – in terms of aerobic fitness and stamina – but what you won’t be able to see is how this is helping your health.

Research has shown that older peoples telomeres can be 50% shorter than younger peoples, but staying active can effectively keep your cells nine years younger!

Now that’s what you call anti-ageing – way more effective than a face cream or vitamin – you’re reducing your risk of illness and increasing your chances of a long and healthy life.

It’s best to check with your doctor before starting a fitness programme, especially if you have any health problems. Once you’ve been given the okay, if you’re not used to exercising then don’t go straight in for high intensity. Instead, focus on building up the amount of time you can walk, then jog (or cycle, swim or row). Once you can keep going comfortably at a moderate pace for ten minutes introduce a ten second burst at slightly higher intensity. Over time, you can build this up gradually.


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