Telomeres are protective nucleoprotein structures located at the ends of linear chromosomes. Telomeres are composed of variable numbers of a tandem repeat sequence bound to the shelterin protein complex. Their length is an important biomarker of health. Why? In somatic tissue, telomeres shorten with each cell division, which is thought to be caused by oxidative stress and inflammation. Very short telomeres trigger replicative senescence, a process that may be activated by a single and significantly short telomere in a cell.

Recent research has demonstrated that leukocyte telomere length (LTL) is positively correlated with lifespan. Specifically, shorter LTL is associated with increased risk of age-related morbidity, and, thus, a potential biomarker of biological aging in humans. Accordingly, LTL is generally shorter among men than women, which is consistent with shorter average life expectancy for males. Also, associations between LTL and age-related diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes (T2D) and cancer have been documented.

In the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 1999-2002), 5823 adults were studied and analyzed using the quantitative polymerase chain reaction method, whereas LTL was compared to standard reference DNA. Physical Activity (PA) was indexed using self-reported MET-minutes regarding frequency, intensity, and duration of engagement in over 60 physical activities. After controlling for covariates, telomeres were 15.6 base pairs shorter for each year of chronological age, and PA was found to be inversely related to LTL. The differences in LTL between Sedentary, Low, and Moderate groups were 140, 137, and 111, respectively. The difference in cell aging between those with High and Low activity was 8.8 years. The difference between those with High and Moderate PA was 7.1 years.

The benefits of higher PA are positively correlated with telomere length among US adults, yielding years of reduced cellular aging compared to those with sedentary lifestyles.

Why Does this Matter?

Addiction and abuse of drugs is associated with shorter life expectancy. Dr. Nora Volkow’s (Director of NIDA) recent work on premature aging may be related to the toxic effects of drugs per se, but also reflects the long-noted lack of healthy behaviors among addicts.

Additionally, in a well-designed and well-powered study of 45,000 men (The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2016) researchers found that those who had used marijuana persistently during adolescence and early adulthood were 40 percent more likely to die from disease by age 60, when compared to those who never used marijuana.

We were made to work hard. The sedentary lifestyle associated with modern life in Western civilized countries is associated with countless pathology. At the biological and even genetic level, exercise increases health and life expectancy. Although it’s axiomatic, alcoholics and drug addicts lead a notoriously sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle. For the most part, “better life through better chemistry” is their approach to healthy living.

Lack of Physical Activity in Addicts

Whenever I am asked what a recovering person can do to improve their overall well-being, their sleep quality, or to enhance their memory or cognitive ability, improve their stamina, etc…my answer is always exercise. It’s simply because I have seen such good outcomes among my professional colleagues and others in recovery who successfully incorporated intensive exercise into their lifestyle, who quite literally arose from the ruins of addiction, to epitomize health and well-being—and cannot imagine a day without physical activity. Whereas before treatment, even minimal exercise was the furthest thing from their mind.

Increased physical activity has numerous medical, genetic and emotional benefits and should be a part of every patient’s individualized recovery program.