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Exercise: A Fountain of Youth

Regular physical activity can help slow — and even reverse — the effects of aging.

Raise your hand if you’d like to age successfully — that is, without acquiring a chronic disease, losing precious memory, gaining a few surplus pounds or suffering diminished mobility.

With aging, the best defense is a good offense. And if the latest research is to be believed, the most effective offense against the downside of aging is exercise.

Understanding the impact of exercise on aging cells is the first step. A study published in the January 2008 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine confirmed the beneficial impact of exercise at the cellular level.  

The London-based study was based on the observation that telomeres (regions of repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome) in white blood cells erode and shorten during the aging process. Thus their length and quality are biological indicators of human aging, sort of an internal lifeline. Researchers compared the length and quality of the telomeres in 1,200 sets of twins; within each set, one twin exercised regularly and the other was sedentary.

Researchers found that the longer, healthier telomeres of the active twin indicated a younger biological age — sometimes by as much as nine years — when compared to the biological age indicated by the shorter, degraded telomeres of the sedentary twin.

Our brains may benefit from exercise as well. Dr. Waneen Spirduso, author of Exercise and Its Mediating Effects on Cognition, argues that exercise improves mental functions such as recall, learning and abstract reasoning. Exercise may even help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

No one is more enthusiastic about the neurological benefits of exercise than Harvard University professor and psychiatrist John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. In a Los Angeles Times article, Ratey claims that aerobic exercise can delay cognitive decline by as much as seven to 10 years. Furthermore, because “exercise creates neuron growth,” Ratey calls exercise “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” He believes that exercise is the single best tool we have for keeping our brain functioning at its highest level.

So the elusive fountain of youth may turn out to be a foundation for youth — one built simply on regular, consistent exercise. Indeed, the evidence is so compelling that I’m turning off the computer and heading outside for a walk.

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