Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, just a passionate human, so please follow any advice at your own risk and follow any doctor orders as they would supersede my simple advice. Please note this article does have one affiliate link that will go to support my blog.
Simple Takeaway: Living longer is definitely something you can affect. Eat more fish, meditate, exercise, and be kind to yourself and you can’t go wrong!
This year I’ve been fascinated by health. My goal has been to go from 306 lbs to 180 lbs but to do so by creating really sustaining, long-term habits for a strong life so I can live to a rich age of 100+.
After 15 weeks, I’ve gone from 306.6 lbs to 262.6 lbs: a good start. But I found I wanted to better understand what IS HEALTH?
For me, it’s very personally defining what does it mean to be healthy? What do I need to do be feel happy and perform my best in life?
For most of my life, I prioritized work before my health because I was honing my ability to be smart, read fast, and remember more and generally know how to answer questions.
But this came at the cost of my health: I gradually climbed from 150 lbs to 180 to 250 by the end of college reaching a climax of over 300 after finishing grad school.
But I wanted to go just beyond the surface: how does thinking impact my health?
How does how I think about my stress impact my health?
How does my ability to deal with anxiety change my health?
I truly thought there would be a difference between someone who is very comfortable with their emotions and someone who is always struggling to rein in their negative thoughts about themselves.
But I never could find scientific evidence of that…until recently 🙂
Telomeres sit at the end of your chromosomes: they keep them intact and alive. You can imagine them as the ends of shoelaces — they keep them from becoming frayed. But every time your cells copy, telomeres get shorter till eventually they and their protection is gone.
And when that happens, a cell often will stop functioning as expected. Often, it can be worse than a cell just dying, but it can proactively do bad things because the cell can no longer hear important messages.
But the things you do, the things you eat, and the habits you have can affect the length of your telomeres. And the length of your telomeres effects how quickly you age biologically.
It’s important to note that scientists have not proven causation, only correlation.
But the scientist who discovered telomeres, Elizabeth Blackburn, felt it SO important to share her information, that she wrote a book: The Telomere Effect (click to buy from amazon). The fact that she did this, implies to me that she would tell her family to take these steps despite the fact pure causation has not been proven.
And that’s good enough for me.
Shorter telomeres inhibit your ability to have healthy cells in the long term. If you shorten them rapidly, your body will age rapidly. This is when you see people that look like they are 60, but are only 40 in physical age.
So, what makes longer vs. shorter Telomeres? Let’s dive in:
- How do you feel when you wake up? Do you dread going to work each day or the stress of what is to come, or are you happy to be alive and grateful? Habitual dread is associated with shorter telomeres. By looking forward to your day, even if you are under a ton of stress, this can lead to long telomeres. The authors of the book looked at caregivers and found that this was a key difference in the individuals with longer telomeres.
- Stress can affect your telomere size: people who react to stressful events in an ego-like way are found with shorter telomeres. This would be when you consider a stressful situation and react to it like, “I don’t know if I can handle this!” Or “I’m not confident enough to do this!” Instead, responding to situations with a challenge response is associated with longer telomeres. When encountering a stressful situation, consider it as a challenge and use self-talk to get there like, “Come one body, we’re maybe not a professional speaker, but we’ll show these people how well we can talk!”. Another way to think about it is this: be kind to yourself. Kindness leads to longer telomeres.
- Feeling unsafe is associated with shorter telomeres. But feeling at low risk (safe) is associated with longer telomeres.
- Sleep! I’ve talked about its importance here. Having good quality sleep and getting at least 7 hours a night is associated with longer telomeres.
- Strong social support is associated with longer telomeres. Think of it this way: can you ask someone for advice on a hard problem you’re having? Do you have people in your life who will always listen to you? Do you have people in your life that show you love and affection? Do you have as much contact as you would like from people you consider close? Having this means you have strong social support.
- Do you ever get stuck thinking negatively about an event over and over again? I think we’ve all done it. I remember this time I was accidentally the only one wearing my band uniform in front of hundreds of people. I kept seeing laughing people in my head again and again. If you do this a lot, there is a cost: your telomeres get shorter. If you find yourself doing this, consider distancing yourself from the event: will you care about this a year from now? 5 years from now? In most cases, you wouldn’t. If that doesn’t work, consider taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself down.
- Life purpose! Having a good sense of purpose that you matter, have something you care about, and want to live is associated with longer telomeres. Finding something to give back to a community can really help drive this sense of purpose.
- Being pessimistic or cynically hostile can have a negative effect on telomeres by making them shorter. If you are constantly on guard and think people are out to get you, this can wear down your brain, too! The only personality trait that was strongly associated with having longer telomeres was conscientiousness: being patient, driven, and organized.
- Self Compassion! Being kind to yourself is associated with longer telomeres. This means not blaming yourself for faults when mistake happens, but listening to yourself and what you’re feeling and recognizing some negative emotions as fleeting. It’s recognizing that you won’t always be right, but being wrong is just a path to learning something else new.
- Eating Fish 3 times a week is associated with longer telomeres (specifically fish high in omega-3 oils like salmon and sardines) or do you take fish oil supplements? Both of these as associated with longer telomeres.
- Do you drink soda every day? Daily intake of sodas high in sugar is associated with shorter telomeres.
- Do you mostly eat whole foods or processed foods? A diet of more vegetables and whole (organic, grass fed) foods is associated with longer telomeres.
- Smoking (ecigs, cigarettes, and cigars) are associated with shorter telomeres.
Things You Can Do to Increase Your Telomere Length
Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) is a method of dealing with stress that has shown a direct increase in telomeres (as much as 17% over 3 months). You can find examples of it here: https://palousemindfulness.com/
Kirtan Kriya is a meditation technique that focuses on deep concentration: it also is highly correlated with an increase in telomeres: Kirtan Kriya Meditation
Moderate Aerobic Exercise 3 times a week for 30-45 minutes was associated with an increase in telomere length. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) exercise was also associated with an increase in telomere length. Unfortunately, resistance training showed no increase in telomere length, so find other reasons for doing that (like keeping your muscles as you age!). It’s worth noting that physical activity potentially may buffer shortening of your telomeres, too. So if you’re under a boatload of stress, don’t neglect your workout 🙂
So, what did I do with all this information?
I try to eat salmon at least once a week and I’m trying to figure out how to do it 3 times a week.
I feel more validated by exercising my 7 days a week, but realize I can drop down to probably just 150 minutes a week once I get to my ideal weight.
I have more reinforcement to not drink coke and to eat as many veggies as possible.
I know my next major focus in my life: becoming a champ at meditation! I keep seeing the benefits of this. I have meditated poorly for many years, but I really want to take my study to the next level.
I’m going to continue working on my life purpose! Part of that is this article 🙂 I write these so I can give back to the community of people in my life, so I hope you’re enjoying it!
My learning about the response to stress was a big one! This inspires me to think more about stress as an opportunity instead of a threat. I definitely could do more of that in my life.
And gratitude! I’ll admit, sometimes, I’m grumpy when I wake up and my first thoughts aren’t always super positive. I’m going to reflect on gratitude and think of ways I can improve that story in the morning.
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