Story was researched, reported, and written for Introduction to Health and Medical Journalism.
Larry Tucker, PhD, a professor of Exercise Science at Brigham Young University, laughs when he’s asked to briefly describe a prior research project. He has had 125 of his studies published during his career in academia. “They’re all notable to me,” he says, “That’s why I do them.”
One of his more recent studies took a closer look at the link between physical activity and telomere length. For everyone who doesn’t study exercise science for a living: Telomeres are part of a chromosome, and their job is to protect genetic information. The shortening of these structures contributes to biological aging. The length of telomeres affects both the “function and fate of cells,” the study says. In fact, research cited in Tucker’s study found that the shorter the telomere, the greater the risk of death. This aging process can be sped up due to factors such as obesity, smoking, and poor diet.
Using data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) over four years and studying tens of thousands of Americans, Tucker was able to analyze the relationship between common lifestyle factors and biological aging. At first, he claims that the results weren’t surprising. “As an exercise scientist and epidemiologist, we know that physical activity is extremely beneficial to the body,” says Tucker.
However, when asked to elaborate, he admits that he was expecting more a dose-response relationship to exercise, so even those individuals who are only moderately active would see benefits in their telomeres. Instead, a high level of physical activity was needed in order to gain the biological benefits. “I think most people—whether they’re active or not—understand that physical activity is beneficial to them and to reducing risk of disease,” says Tucker. The study found that highly active people have about a nine year reduction in biological aging.
Despite this evidence as well as the countless other articles that have been published on the topic, a good portion of the adult population still doesn’t exercise regularly. “I don’t think many people realize the depth and breadth of the benefits,” says Tucker.
Most people simply lack the time to devote to physical activity, says Katie Derbeck, a personal training director. When she’s not mentoring a fleet of new trainers at the gyms she works at, she is engaging with gym members and showing them the benefits of investing in personal training. “I’m hearing all the excuses as to why somebody has put their fitness on the backburner.”
Lack of knowledge is intimidating, but as Derbeck explains, beyond just simple body resistance routines, the options of potential exercises are endless. “You could work out with a towel, with a resistance band, or with a jump rope that’s $2!”
Unfortunately, people struggle to put their lives and health as top priorities, echoes Carmen Daniel, who works as a Worksite Wellness Program Manager for Georgia’s Department of Public Health.
In a work environment, the culture also plays a significant role. Daniel says, “You think about the work culture in America, and you don’t necessarily think about taking time for self.” She even admits that although she works daily in a health-and-wellness-focused position, she still struggles with remembering to put herself first.
In addition to the obvious losing inches and weight that stem from regular exercise (and healthy eating), some “non-scale victories,” as Derbeck calls them, include “heightened energy, better sleeping patterns, boosting your natural metabolism, healthier BMI, and confidence.”
Georgia has put wellness in the forefront by allowing government employees 30 minutes of time throughout the day for physical activity, whether that’s walking to a nearby park or running up-and-down the stairs. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given the data and expert opinions), only 30-40% of the employees in Daniel’s department actually utilize the policy, and even then, it’s a self-reported use, so what they’re actually doing is unknown.
If the reduction of biological aging by almost a decade, prospect of weight loss, and other “non-scale victories” aren’t enough of a motivation to hit the gym, go for a bike ride, walk around the block, or create a unique body-resistance training circuit, Derbeck tells her potential clients an analogy. “You have to invest in a vehicle…whatever you use to get around from Point A to Point B. If that car breaks down, you have to invest in a new car, but if your body breaks down, you no longer have it.”