How Do Some Runners Defy Age?

Biologist Bill Andrews, founder and CEO of Sierra Sciences, has dedicated his career to “curing aging,” as he terms it. And he sees long-distance running as a weapon in the fight to stay biologically young. “There are a lot of studies suggesting that people who run all the time age better than people who run only occasionally, who age better than people who don’t run at all,” he says.

One such study out of the University of New Hampshire showed that runners older than 60 “were just as physiologically economical as younger runners, even those in their 20s and 30s.” Add to that, Joyner has found that “any marker of biological age is much lower” in older people who are highly active, particularly those who have been active for many years.

All of this is contrary to the popular belief that running wears down your body. That’s because what we think we know about how running effects our bodies most likely comes from studies using lab mice. But, Andrews says, mice and humans don’t age in the same way.

“When you put a mouse on a treadmill,” he says, “it gets a tremendous increase in free radicals and will die of old age earlier. Humans are the opposite. We boost our antioxidant levels by running a lot. Yes, you increase free radicals, but your antioxidants even more.”

He knows about which he speaks. When he’s not in the lab, Andrews is off somewhere running. He has completed nearly four dozen 100-mile races over the last two decades, and at age 64, he can still run a 6:50 mile. His ultimate goal is to run a 7-minute mile at age 130.

“I’ve got an identical twin brother, and he’s not a runner,” Andrews says. “He’s got knee problems, joint problems; they’re talking about replacing his knees. I don’t have any of these problems. The doctors are shocked when I go get an MRI of my hips and knees and they’re all perfect. But what’s happening is the running keeps them lubricated and going.”

Ample research, including Andrews’ own, suggests that endurance running may do much more than just strengthen your joints. Running longer may literally help you live longer.

Here’s why.

Your chromosomes, the part of your cells that house your genetic information, are bookended by structures called telomeres. Each time your cells divide (i.e., as you get older), these telomeres shorten by a fraction, eventually shrinking to about one-third of their length at birth. This perpetual shortening of telomeres is why you age biologically.

But endurance sports may actually slow the rate at which telomeres shorten, in theory increasing your potential lifespan.

“One of the best things you can do to keep your telomeres long is endurance exercise,” Andrews says. “Keep moving forward.”

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