Couch Potatoes Age Much Faster, Research Suggests



Last Updated On: 2024-01-13

Learn how exercise can help maintain telomere length, reducing biological aging by up to eight years according to a recent study.

Doctor Medica team

It is no surprise that exercise, or lack thereof, has an effect on health. From heart disease to diabetes, exercise can have an impact on health and longevity, helping people reach a greater age in better condition. However, a new study has found that lack of exercise can also speed up biological aging, with couch potatoes finding their body aged eight years ahead of their fit counterparts. The findings could impact everything from heart health to visible signs of aging.

Focusing on Telomeres

The study in question comes from researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. The researchers focused on telomeres as an indicator of biological aging, since these genetic strands inhabit all cells throughout the body. Previous research has found that these telomeres act similarly to plastic caps on the tips of shoelaces: the telomeres help protect the active part of chromosomes from fraying and damage. However, as these telomeres help protect the DNA, they suffer damage themselves, fraying and shortening over time. The shorter these telomeres get, the less able they are to protect DNA from damage, and the associated cells can in turn deteriorate, affecting organs and important biological processes. In fact, previous studies have linked shorter telomeres with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Although these telomeres do naturally degrade with age as the cells repeatedly divide, lifestyle choices such as smoking can speed up this aging process. The study authors set out to determine if exercise also affects telomere length, and therefore the speed of aging.

The Study

For their study, the researchers used data from the Women’s Health Initiative from 2012 to 2013, recruiting almost 1,500 women between the ages of 64 and 95, with an average age of 79. The women wore accelerometers to measure their movement and completed questionnaires about their exercise habits during the study, indicating how much they were active throughout the day and how much time they remained sedentary. The researchers looked at sedentary time and leukocyte telomere length (LTL), adjusting for demographic characteristics, lifestyle behavior other than exercise, and health factors that may affect telomere length.

The Findings

The researchers compared the women in the study who spent the most time inactive to the women who spent the most time active, getting their recommended 40 minutes or more moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. After crunching their data, the scientists found that the women who got less than 40 minutes of exercise daily and who spent more than 10 hours per day inactive had much shorter telomere length than their active counterparts. This means that not only were these women more at risk for cardiovascular disease and other health problems, but they were also at an older biological age. In fact, based on telomere length, the researchers concluded these inactive elderly women were aged about eight years more than active women with the same chronological age. This could make a 79-year-old in the study feel more like an 87-year-old.

The Study Limitations

Although the study suggests being inactive triggers premature aging, it does have its limitations. The study looked at only women, and only seniors. The researchers are hoping that future studies will confirm whether the same findings hold true for older men and younger people, as well as confirming their own results for elderly women. That said, the study does seem to confirm the health benefits of an active lifestyle.

How to Prevent Premature Aging

The finding that a sedentary lifestyle can trigger premature aging may not be good news for couch potatoes, but it does offer hope. The researchers found that even when women sat longer, if they exercised for at least 30 minutes per day their telomere length was not shorter than expected. This suggests that the key to preventing premature aging in seniors could be to simply exercise moderately for half an hour a day. The study authors suggest getting the word out to more seniors, encouraging them to exercise for their health.

Reversing Biological Aging

Not only does the study suggest exercising can help prevent premature aging, but previous research has suggested there may even be a way to reverse biological aging. In 2015, scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine released the results of their research into increasing telomere length. In a procedure that uses modified RNA, the researchers lengthened the telomeres in skin cells, helping the cells multiply and live longer than their untreated counterparts. This technique could some day help treat diseases associated with shortened telomeres, and who knows, maybe even extend human lifespan.

Current Treatments for Aging

Although the future holds great promise, for now treating aging involves focusing on each disease, be it cardiovascular health or cognitive decline. Even active women will begin to see wrinkles form eventually, and they may turn to dermal fillers or other treatments to help smooth their skin and look the age they feel inside. To buy dermal fillers like Juvederm and other dermatological products to treat visible signs of aging, such as JUVÉDERM® VOLIFT™, visit

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