Overall life expectancy continues to rise, approaching 80 years of age in several developed countries. However, healthy life expectancy lags far behind, which has, in turn, contributed to increasing costs in healthcare. One way to improve health and attenuate the socio-economic impact of an aging population is to increase overall fitness through physical activity. Telomere attrition or shortening is a well-known molecular marker in aging. As such, several studies have focused on whether exercise influences health and aging through telomere biology. This systematic review examines the recent literature on the effect of physical activity on telomere length (TL) and/or telomerase activity as molecular markers of aging.
A focused search was performed in the databases PubMed and Web of Science for retrieving relevant articles over the past ten years. The search contained the following keywords: exercise, sport, physical activity, fitness, sedentary, physical inactivity, telomere, telomere length, t/s ratio, and telomerase. PRISMA guidelines for systematic reviews were observed.
A total of 43 articles were identified and categorized into randomized controlled trials (RCT), observational or interventional studies. RCTs ( n = 8) showed inconsistent findings of increased TL length with physical activity in, e.g. obese, post-menopausal women. In comparison with a predominantly sedentary lifestyle, observational studies ( n = 27) showed significantly longer TL with exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity; however, there was no consensus on the duration and type of physical activity and training modality. Interventional studies ( n = 8) also showed similar findings of significantly longer TL prior to exercise intervention; however, these studies had smaller numbers of enrolled participants (mostly of high-performance athletes), and the physical activities covered a range of exercise intensities and duration. Amongst the selected studies, aerobic training of moderate to vigorous intensity is most prevalent. For telomere biology analysis, TL was determined mainly from leukocytes using qPCR. In some cases, especially in RCT and interventional studies, different sample types such as saliva, sperm, and muscle biopsies were analyzed; different leukocyte cell types and potential genetic markers in regulating telomere biology were also investigated.
Taken together, physical activity with regular aerobic training of moderate to vigorous intensity appears to help preserve TL. However, the optimal intensity, duration of physical activity, as well as type of exercise still need to be further elucidated. Along with TL or telomerase activity, participants’ fitness level, the type of physical activity, and training modality should be assessed at different time points in future studies, with the plan for long-term follow-up. Reducing the amount of sedentary behavior may have a positive effect of preserving and increasing TL. Further molecular characterization of telomere biology in different cell types and tissues is required in order to draw definitive causal conclusions on how physical activity affects TL and aging.