What do the plastic covers on the end of shoestrings have to do with living a longer, healthier life? Nothing, really, unless your name is Dr. Elissa Epel, a leading health psychologist at University of California, San Francisco, and Director of the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Lab. Dr. Epel compares those little plastic shoelace covers to telomeres, what scientists have found on the ends of the body’s chromosomes, and have been studying ever since those telomeres were realized.
In fact, the impact of those telomeres is so great that Dr. Epel, and her colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian-American Nobel laureate who is currently the President of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, have written a book, The Telomere Effect, to share their findings. The book, in essence, explains the impact of long telomeres, which can prolong one’s ability to have a healthy, vibrant life, versus shorter telomeres, which can lead to some senile cells that are confused and exhausted and no longer do their jobs as well as they used to. As in, cells that let your body tissues begin to age, and possibly age prematurely, making you look, feel and act older than you chronologically are. Plus, the book offers specific measures and tips on activities that can improve telomere health.
Of course, some of our telomere reality is just our luck-of-the-draw; we did, after all, receive our base telomere length from our parents. However, beyond the realities of what nature has given us, there are steps we can take to control how short or long, and how robust, those telomeres are, and even reverse or improve on that with which we began.
- Mindfulness meditation and qigong have both been proven to decrease stress and to increase the enzyme that replenishes telomeres
- Participating in regular physical exercise on a regular basis is more important than being a high-performance athlete or “weekend warrior.”
- Eating fresh, whole foods rather than processed meats
- Establishing a social connection within your neighborhood, or actually moving away from neglectful circumstances
- Getting enough sleep (seven seems to be the magic number of hours) as well as getting good quality sleep
- Approaching stressful situations with a challenge-mentality (I can do this. I will find a way.) rather than being fearful, anxious or uncertain in the face of a threat.
What else can you do right now to increase your odds for longer, more robust, telomeres? Reality tells us that trying to create an entirely different lifestyle overnight is not going to work. So, instead, try this:
- From each of the following areas (stress-reduction practices; physical exercise; nutrition; social connections; sleep; reaction to stress), make a list of goals for self-improvement (not because you’re ‘not good enough’ as you are, but because you are just that important and worth the effort!)
- Choose 1-2 items from any of your lists and work on improving your habits in those areas.
- A month later, six months later…when you’re ready and those 1-2 items have become a part of your habitual practices, choose another 1-2 more items from your lists and start improving on those areas.
If an item you choose seems to be more than you can accomplish at this time, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just remember, each little step at a time combines to reflect a tremendous impact.
And, the biggest reminder of all, you’re worth the effort.
May longer telomeres, and years of good health, be in your future.