Picture a brand new pair of shoelaces.  They are folded up nicely, tightly packed with the tips of the laces at the end.  When you open the package, and grab the ends, they unfold all the way out and you usually bring the ends together to make sure you have the exact middle before running them through the eyelets of your shoes.

How these laces look while still in the package makes for an excellent analogy for how your chromosomes (DNA) might look.  If you were to spread your chromosomes out, you would see all the genes that make you who you are.

Whenever I hear about these little things called telomeres, the analogy is always made to shoelaces.  In case you have never heard of telomeres, you will.  Telomeres are made up of DNA and other proteins. They are the end caps on your chromosomes; much like the hardened ends of your shoelaces (called aglets for your trivia buffs).   Their job is to keep your chromosomes stable while your cells grow and divide.

Telomeres have been shown to have a strong relationship to aging, disease and premature death.  The longer your telomeres, the slower you age, the less likely you are to develop disease and the longer you are likely to live. 

When I first read about telomeres, I assumed there was little I could do about their length because they were made up of DNA.  If it’s in my genes, I can’t really change it.  I was wrong.

People think of aging as lifestyle and genetics.  The two are thought about as unique and separate.  Not so!  Telomeres are the connection between your lifestyle and your genetics.  You can change your genetics by your actions.  Think about the power of that for a moment…

Because I am dealing largely with the baby boomer crowd, the subject of longevity or ‘anti-aging’ comes up often.  My reading on the subject often comes across the importance of telomere length and living longer.  Not sure about you, but I personally like the idea of living longer.  Having something in my body that can physically be measured and is directly related to how long I live seems to take the complexity out of things.  Doesn’t it?

It gets even better.  The length of your telomeres is NOT predetermined and can be changed and improved.  In reading through a number of studies, there are specific actions you can take on a daily basis which can result in an increase in telomere length.

It will not be a surprise with these activities are:

  • Improved quality of sleep
  • An active lifestyle
  • Eating a quality diet
  • Decreasing stress
  • Having strong social support

The telomeres have sort of a built in feedback loop.  When you practice the above 5 behaviors, you increase the length of your telomeres which makes you better able to deal with things that disrupt these behaviors in the first place.  Studies have shown people with longer telomeres were better able to deal with life stressors than those with shorter telomeres.

If ever there were proof of a direct connection to lifestyle and your genetics – this is it.  And guess what, each and every one of these is under your control.  You may not agree on the surface, but if you make each of them a priority these actions will be much easier of improve.

Here is the short version actions you may be doing that interfere with each of these 5 activities:

  • Sleep: late night TV, alcohol, eating too close to bedtime (especially sugar)
  • An active lifestyle: sitting excessively, not doing resistance training, not walking 10,000 steps per day
  • Eating a quality diet: Eating processed carbs (bread, cereal, pasta, crackers, sweets), not getting enough good fats (fish, coconut, avocados, mixed nuts, grass fed beef), not eating enough veggies
  • Decreasing stress: not taking 5 minutes or more per day to meditate and focus on breathing and relaxation. While your workload may not always be under your control, your actions during your downtime, travel, etc are under your control
  • Having strong social support: texting and Facebook are NOT substitutes for human interaction and support.  We are not designed for isolation.  Interact, meet and gather with friends and family and provide this same support to others

The next time you lace up your sneakers – as you get ready for a workout – take a look at the tips of your laces.  What have you done today or this week to improve your aglets?