New study shows sedentary seniors are older than their chronological age

Sitting for 10 hours a day without any physical activity could accelerate aging by eight years, researchers have discovered. Media for Medical/UIG via Getty Images

Getting older will undoubtedly make you slow down a little, but that’s no excuse to stop moving altogether. In fact, being sedentary could advance your biological age by as much as eight years.

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers studied cell function and sedentary time in 1,481 women with an average age of 79. Specifically, they looked at the length of their telomeres, which are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that help protect them from deterioration. (Think of them like the plastic casing on the end of a shoelace.)

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The researchers examined telomere length because it is directly associated with aging and disease. Shortened telomeres have been shown to trigger an SOS response in the body, which in the most benign scenario will cause it to cease replicating and accelerate aging. However, in the most dangerous case, it would become abnormal and potentially turn into a cancerous cell.

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“Previous studies have shown that shortened telomere length, which can be exacerbated by lifestyle factors like smoking and obesity, is associated with a shortened lifespan, cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” says Aladdin Shadyab, lead author of the study and postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “But this is the first time we’ve linked sitting and exercise to shortened telomere length.”

Shadyab found that women who exercised less than 30 minutes per day and were sedentary for more than 10 hours (not including sleeping) had biologically older cells than their age reflected. In particular, low physical activity accounted for an eight-year biological gap between participants who were active and those who were not.

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“The interesting part of these findings was that women who attained the recommended amount of exercise — 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity — did not have shortened telomeres despite their sitting time. This allows us to conclude that an inactive lifestyle has a direct effect on telomere length.”

It can be difficult for seniors to find the motivation to keep moving, but according to Pat Irwin, president and founder of ElderCareCanada, connection is the key.

“If you’re connected socially, mentally, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally, you’re opening up your world instead of letting it get so small that it turns into a night table with pills on it,” she says.

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It’s this connection, whether through social interaction or Facebook, that will push seniors to get out and get moving.

Irwin suggests “soft” aerobics, like Zumba or tai chi, which is good for balance, strength and concentration, dancing, or walking either outside or in a mall during the winter months.

“It’s important for seniors to be with others and feel like other people are depending on them,” she says. “Knowing that your friend is waiting for you to go to the park for tai chi is just the right push.”

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