Are you ready to go back to the future? No, this doesn’t involve a time-traveling DeLorean, and you won’t be accompanied by the eccentric scientist Doc Brown. Nope. We’re going to be talking about how you can turn back the clock on your body age. And that means looking and feeling younger (or even better than you might remember). I’m talking about:
- Younger-looking skin
- A leaner, better-looking body
- A stronger, more mobile, more functional body that moves better with greater ease and comfort
- More stamina, endurance, and freedom to do the things you enjoy doing
- More energy and a better mood
- Better focus, concentration, and memory, and an overall brighter brain
- Better sleep
- Fewer health issues/concerns and doctor’s visits
I’m not saying all that will magically happen overnight. BUT, when you consistently put these strategies into play, you will not just slow down the sands of time, you will quite literally feel the clock of your body age turning back.
Let’s do this!
Body Age 101: Telomeres, Cellular Senescence, and Mitochondria
Full disclosure: I’m going to geek out with some science in this section. While I’d love for you to join me to better understand how we’re turning back the clock on your body age, feel free to jump ahead to the sections below if you’re itching to take action. I don’t blame ya—the clock’s a tickin’!
When it comes to body age, one of the most commonly used scientific terms thrown out is telomeres, which are considered a biomarker of aging. Basically, telomeres are sections of DNA at the end of our chromosomes (the threadlike structure made up of our genetic information).
They help organize each of the chromosomes in the nucleus of our cells, and they protect the ends of our chromosomes by forming a cap, kind of like the plastic tip on your shoelaces (i.e., the aglet). If there were no telomeres, our chromosomes could stick together.
Telomeres also allow chromosomes to be replicated properly during cell division. What’s most relevant when it comes to your body age is that every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter. In other words, telomere length shortens with age.
While cell division (and telomere shortening) is a normal process of aging, certain lifestyle factors can affect the rate of telomere shortening. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about many of them below.
What’s important to note is that when telomeres become too short, the chromosomes reach a “critical length” and can no longer be replicated (often referred to as the Hayflick limit). At this point, the cells become senescent. Cellular senescence—which essentially describes old cells that have deteriorated, stopped dividing, and don’t function as well as younger cells—is not just an effect of getting older; it’s the reason we age.
Simply put, cellular senescence is a key driver of aging. Along those lines, telomere shortening is regarded as the “cellular senescence biomarker of choice.” 1,2 In other words, telomere length is a good proxy of your body age.
If you really want to turn back the clock on your body age, there’s another critical component of your cells we need to talk about: Mitochondria. Just to jog your memory, mitochondria are known as the “power plants” of all living things, including us. That is, they are the components of our cells responsible for providing energy in the form of a molecule called ATP. In fact, the mitochondria produce about 95% of the body’s energy.
Both mitochondria number and function are critical. And in the absence of a dense network of efficient mitochondria, our ability to live, breathe, move, be energetic, and live life to the fullest is severely compromised.
The truth is the traditional view of mitochondria as “power plants” (while accurate) is incomplete. In fact, mitochondrial health and function may very well be the “missing link” or so-called “fountain of youth.” On the other hand, mitochondrial dysfunction is linked to nearly every age-related human health issue, and it can even be a cause of a distinct type of cellular senescence.
Simply put, cellular senescence and mitochondrial dysfunction are hallmarks of aging. 3
There are other factors, of course—such as persistent, unhealthy levels of inflammation and excessive oxidative stress—that contribute to an increasing body age. And they are likely to contribute by accelerating mitochondrial dysfunction and cellular senescence.
Enough of the geek speak; time’s a wasting…let’s take action!
10 Ways to Reduce Your Body Age in 2019
“You gotta make a change. It’s time for us as a people to start making some changes. Let’s change the way we eat; let’s change the way we live; and let’s change the way we treat each other. You see, the old way wasn’t working, so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive.” – Tupac Shakur (“Changes”)
Tip 1: Lift weights.
One of the most effective, yet surprising, ways to increase your healthspan and improve your quality of life is to lift weights. Muscle strength is one of the strongest predictors of how long and how well you will live.
Regular resistance training can help you maintain muscle and bone mass as you get older. It can also boost mood, improve cognitive function, protect against injuries, and improve overall quality of life.
Even more, you don’t have to lift like a bodybuilder to reap the rewards. You can lift light or heavy weights—you can even use your body weight.
To reap the benefits, the key is your degree of effort and pushing yourself to get better over time. Generally speaking, 2 – 3 full-body workouts that emphasize all major muscle groups and focus on compound movements (squats, presses, rows) should do the trick.
Tip 2: Do your cardio.
Want to improve the health of your mitochondria? Obviously, you do if you want to turn back the clock on your body age. Well, aerobic exercise should be at the top of your list.
You see, regular aerobic exercise stimulates a process called mitochondrial biogenesis, which is science speak for increasing the size and number of mitochondria. In other words, while resistance training increases muscle size and strength, one of the key physiological adaptations to regular aerobic exercise is an increase in mitochondria number and improvement in mitochondrial function.
What’s cool is you don’t have to spend hours running on the treadmill or pounding the pavement, although you can if you want. Either traditional slow-go cardio or high-intensity interval training will do the trick.
As an added bonus, in a recent study published in the European Heart Journal, researchers from Germany found that both traditional endurance training and high-intensity interval training led to a two- to three-fold increase in the activity of an enzyme called telomerase, which prevents the shortening of telomeres. 4 In simple terms, aerobic exercise led to increased telomere length, literally turning back the clock on the participants’ body age.
For most people, a good rule of thumb is to do 2 – 3 cardio sessions (either traditional endurance exercise, interval training, or a combination of the two) each week.
Tip 3: Consider fasting.
Intermittent fasting—and especially time-restricted feeding (TRF)—is one of the most popular health and wellness trends and for good reasons. Even though it’s not for everyone and it’s not necessarily a panacea, according to a growing body of scientific research, intermittent fasting is linked to a robust array of health benefits. One its most attractive features is it only specifies when you eat and doesn’t necessarily restrict what or how much. In other words, intermittent fasting (IF) can be paired with any pattern of eating that suits your fancy (e.g., Paleo, Mediterranean, Low FODMAP).
Among the myriad purported benefits of IF is that it may offer anti-aging properties. In fact, Dr. Valter Longo, one of the leading IF researchers (whose particular IF specialty is fasting-mimicking diets, or FMD for short), wrote a book titled The Longevity Diet, which suggests a clear tie between IF and longevity.
For example, Dr. Longo’s research has revealed that FMD, which entails following a low-calorie, low-protein diet for a 5-day period during a monthly cycle, significantly reduces biomarkers for aging, increases regeneration markers, and promotes optimal healthspan in humans. 5,6
- Increased insulin sensitivity and increased ketone production
- Improved blood lipids (e.g., triglycerides)
- Healthier levels of inflammatory markers (e.g., CRP, TNFα, IL-6)
- Reduced markers of oxidative stress
- Decreased levels of homocysteine
- Weight loss and reduced abdominal (i.e., visceral) fat
- Increased parasympathetic nervous system activity
- Reduced resting heart rate and blood pressure
Part of the reason IF may flex its anti-aging muscle is through caloric restriction (CR), arguably one of the most effective tools to reduce your body age. A fairly robust body of research has shown that CR reliably extends lifespan. This can be traced back, at least in part, to improvements in mitochondria size, number, and function.
CR protects mitochondria by reducing the production of free radicals, and what’s more, CR activates the key anti-aging compounds SIRT1 and AMPK, which are cellular energy sensors that upregulate mitochondrial biogenesis. 9 If you like to eat and daily caloric restriction, which can involve cutting calories by 30 – 40%, doesn’t sound appealing to you, IF may be a more practical strategy that further promotes healthspan, which not only means living long, but more importantly, living well.
IF has been shown to upregulate a process called autophagy, which essentially involves “cleaning up” cellular garbage, including damaged mitochondria. While the relationship is complex, autophagy appears to have a selective role (positive) on cellular senescence. 10 As an added benefit, whereas CR typically results in the loss of calorie-burning lean muscle, IF promotes fat loss while retaining valuable lean mass, which is arguably one of the most overlooked variables for living a long, healthy life. 7,11
Practically speaking, there are multiple ways to implement IF. You can limit your eating window (to 8 hours, for example) daily (TRF). You can fast once or twice a week (PF). You can fast every other day (ADF). Or, you can implement a very-low-calorie diet for a 5-day period each month (FMD).
Tip 4: Get outside
Believe it or not, one of the simplest ways to reduce your body age is to spend more time in nature. Of course, when most people think about being outside, they think about sun exposure, which, of course, leads to vitamin D. After all, it’s called the “sunshine vitamin” for a reason. That said, vitamin D is actually a hormone, and nearly every tissue in the body has a vitamin D receptor, highlighting its far-reaching array of benefits.
Like most things, too much AND not enough sunlight can be potentially harmful. Believe it or not, not getting enough sun exposure is much worse than getting too much. Avoiding sun exposure is a major risk factor for all-cause mortality—as much as twofold higher mortality rate. There’s also an inverse relationship between vitamin D levels (i.e., lower levels = higher risk/incidence) and breast cancer, colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease (and all forms of dementia), autoimmune conditions (e.g., multiple sclerosis, psoriasis), liver disease, and macular degeneration to name a few. 12 Of course, these are just associations. However, they do suggest some intriguing relationships.
The irony is that longer-living sun seekers are at greater risk for skin cancer. HOWEVER, sun exposure is related to better skin cancer outcomes. Considering that nonmelanoma skin cancer is associated with many thousands or tens of thousands of cumulative hours of lifetime sun exposure, the risks of inadequate sun exposure are more concerning for most people. However, sunburns are associated with substantial increased risk (about double) of melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer. The WORST-case scenario is the person who doesn’t get much sun exposure, but when s/he does, s/he gets sunburned.
While recommendations vary based on skin type, time of year, time of day, and latitude (i.e., proximity to the sun), the research indicates that spending about 15 minutes 2 – 3 times a week between 11 am and 3 pm during the months of May through October with about 40% of the skin exposed (e.g., face, arms, and legs) for most people (with even less for people who have very fair skin and a bit more for those with darker complexions) is adequate to obtain sufficient levels of vitamin D.
But it’s not just about vitamin D (although that’s obviously important). Connecting with nature—such as through forest bathing, grounding (i.e., walking barefoot in the grass), gardening, or simply soaking up your natural surroundings—can have tremendous whole-body benefits, such as: 13, 14, 15, 16
- Increased parasympathetic nervous system activity
- Reduced feelings of stress and levels of cortisol
- Reduced blood pressure and pulse rate
- Reduced blood sugar levels
- Improved immune system function
- Improved mood and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety
- Increased focus, concentration, and short-term memory
- Increased energy levels and feelings of vitality
- Better, more restorative sleep and healthier circadian rhythms
Tip 5: Get social.
Social connectedness may be one of the most overlooked variables when it comes to living a long, healthy, and meaningful life, and it can also directly impact your body age. Folks who feel socially isolated (whether real or perceived) are at a 30 – 50% higher risk of mortality compared to folks who are more socially integrated. 17 That’s on par with other well-documented risk factors, like smoking and high blood pressure.
What’s more, research shows that low social support is associated with shorter telomere lengths, providing evidence that your social environment (or lack thereof) may contribute to rates of cellular aging, particularly later in life. 18On the flipside, being linked to a social network that makes you feel connected to your environment is essential for maintaining psychological and physical health, and it’s crucial for cognitive vitality as we age.
Tip 6: Go the F to sleep.
Want a surefire way to fast forward the hands on your body clock and accelerating your body age? Don’t get enough sleep. That’s right, yet another benefit of restorative sleep is reducing your body age.
You see, research has shown a linear association between sleep duration, sleep quality, and telomere length. In other words, lack of sleep is directly associated with shorter telomere length and cellular aging. For example, in a study published in the journal PLoS One, researchers from the United Kingdom found that men who slept 5 or fewer hours per night had 6% shorter telomere lengths than men who slept at least 7 hours. 19
So, here’s yet another reason to put a priority on sleep, and when it comes to improving the restorative quality of sleep, there are three factors to consider: timing (when you go to bed), intensity, and duration (how long you’re in bed). The best way to capitalize on all three components is to improve your sleep hygiene and reset your circadian rhythms.
For many people, one of the most important steps you can take to improving your sleep timing, intensity, and duration is to get in bed earlier. That’s right: go the F to sleep!
Tip 7: Cut the Added Sugar & Refined Grains
Pretty much regardless of your health and wellness goal, if you want to get better, you’re pretty much playing with house money if you bet that cutting out added sugar and refined grains will be one of the steps to get you there.
When it comes to reducing your body age, there are several factors at play. For starters, glycemic control (i.e., blood sugar management) seems to be one of the most important health biomarkers to monitor as research shows that a measurement called HbA1c, which stands for glycated (or glycosylated) hemoglobin, is a key predictor of mortality (which is a scientific term for “death”).
Basically, HbA1c is a robust biomarker of the preceding 2 – 3 months’ average blood glucose level. In other words, it’s a relatively long-term measure of one’s blood glucose control (i.e., glycemic control). 20 What’s even more interesting is that HbA1c predicts mortality independently of fasting blood glucose, which is a more commonly tested biomarker. 21, 22
In addition to HbA1c, glycemic variability (think swings or fluctuations in blood sugar) is an extremely important player when it comes to glycemic control. Poor glycemic balance (think spikes in blood sugar after a meal followed by a rapid drop) is directly related to poor mood states, crappy energy levels, and subsequent poor food choices. 23
What’s more, poor glycemic control is one of the primary variables contributing to mitochondrial dysfunction. 24 At least part of the disrupting effect of poor glycemic control can likely be traced to advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). AGEs, which are “glycotoxins” that can be produced during cooking (e.g., grilling, broiling, frying) and also be formed inside the body (typically in line with poor glycemic control or high blood sugar), increase free radical formation, increase oxidative stress, and promote inflammation.
Along those lines, AGEs have been implicated in mitochondrial dysfunction. And if that wasn’t enough, mitochondrial dysfunction is thought to exacerbate the production of AGEs, “fueling the fire” so to speak. 25, 26, 27, 28 AGEs…that’s a pretty appropriate acronym, don’t you think? Not surprisingly, poor glycemic control has been linked to shortened telomere length. 29
Moral of the story: If you want to reduce your body age, cut out the junk food that’s made with added sugars and refined grains. I’m talking about so-called foods and drinks like sugar-sweetened beverages (like soda, fruit juice, and fruit-flavored drinks), sugar, candy, cakes, cookies, muffins, pies, desserts, sweetened yogurt, ice cream, pastries, ready-to-eat cereals, granola bars, sauces, dressings, and the like.
Ideally, you’d completely eliminate your consumption of added and “free” sugars (basically all sugars except those that are naturally occurring in whole fruits and vegetables or dairy products) and refined grains. Since complete abstinence is neither practical nor completely necessary for everyone, a general guideline is to keep added sugar intake below 25 – 30 grams per day (i.e., no more than 5% of total caloric intake).
Instead, focus on eating more whole foods (fruits are completely fine, by the way). Want to know an added bonus of eating more colorful veggies and fruits? Younger, healthier-looking skin.
Tip 8: Balance your omegas
Omega-3s and omega-6s are vitamin-like essential fatty acids. That is, your body needs them yet cannot produce them on its own. So, you must get them through your diet—food, supplementation, or a combination of the two.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids serve very important, distinct, and essentially, divergent functions in the body. For example, while they are both precursors to hormone-like substances called eicosanoids, which are signaling molecules that play an important role in the regulation of inflammation, those derived from omega-6s are proinflammatory while those from omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. Further, the two compete with one another—both for “parking spots” in cell membranes and also for enzymatic conversion to their more biologically active forms.
Simply put, balance is critical when it comes to these two essential fatty acids. In fact, researchers estimate that the optimal ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1:1 to 4:1 (omega-6 to omega-3). Unfortunately, most people are consuming as much as 20 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3s, and that shifts the body toward a proinflammatory, prothrombotic, and proaggregatory state that is linked to an increase in virtually all inflammation-related conditions.
What’s more, research has shown that telomere lengths increase with decreasing ratios of omega-6 to omega-3s. In other words, excess omega-6 intake is associated with shorter telomere lengths and accelerated aging while diets rich in omega-3s can protect and, in some cases, lengthen telomeres. 30, 31, 32
Simply put, reduce your consumption of omega-6s (which you can do by cutting out processed foods loaded with omega-6-rich oils, such as safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, soybean, peanut, and canola oils) and increase your intake of omega-3s by consuming more cold-water fatty fish (like wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring, mackerel), seafood (like oysters and mussels), and high-quality fish oil supplements.
Tip 9: Meditate, breathe deeply, and practice gratitude.
While there are many stress management techniques, to me, these three are foundational because of their wide array of benefits—such as contributing to a younger body age. Among the many overlooked benefits, they foster an abundance mindset, and they promote mindfulness.
Of course, chronic, persistent stress and dysregulated cortisol rhythms are a surefire recipe to accelerate your body age. For example, the stress hormone cortisol is associated with age-related disease and disability, and abnormal cortisol patterns are associated with increased blood pressure, poor glycemic control, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and poor sleep quality. 33,34
In other words, you can consider these tools a stealth trio in combating an unhealthy stress response and dysregulated cortisol rhythms. Take meditation, for example, which can help:
- Reduce stress
- Reduce pain
- Alleviate depression
- Promote restful, restorative sleep
- Boost immune function
- Promote relaxation
- Increase levels of DHEA, a powerful anti-aging hormone that declines with age (i.e., “adrenopause”)
Then there’s gratitude, which can help elevate your mood, help you feel more connected, and help you become a better, more likeable, and more trustworthy person. Practicing gratitude (which admittedly may seem a little woo-woo at first) can also help lower levels of inflammation, help you cope with stress, reduce anxiety, boost energy levels, and even improve sleep. 35
As far as deep breathing…STOP. Seriously. Stop reading and take a moment to tune into your breathing. Are you taking short, shallow breaths into your chest (or maybe holding your breath altogether)? Or, are you taking long, deep breaths that fill your lungs, then your chest, and finally your head with oxygen-rich air?
My guess is the former, which is unfortunate because, according to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), deep breathing facilitates the body’s “relaxation response,” eliciting:
- Increased parasympathetic nervous system activity
- Reduced heart rate and blood pressure
- Muscle relaxation
- Increased levels of nitric oxide
- Reduced feelings of stress and levels of cortisol
- Increased feelings of calmness
The AIS recommends deep belly breathing for 20 – 30 minutes each day to reduce stress and anxiety, and the AIS website offers several certified deep breathing techniques to help you get started with your practice.
Tip 10: Stress yourself (thermally)
Wait, didn’t I just get done telling you that stress-management techniques like meditation and deep breathing are keys to reducing your body age? And now I’m telling you to stress yourself?
Yes, that’s right, but I’m talking about a different type of stress. I’m talking about thermal stress, like hot and cold exposure. And speaking of stress, it’s all about perception. We don’t grow in comfort. We grow as a result of stress—as long as it’s relatively mild and transient.
Stepping outside your thermoneutral zone—that 72-or-so-degree comfort zone of yours—can serve as a hormetic stress and have tremendous upside. Essentially, in appropriate doses, hot and cold exposure can trigger adaptive responses that are highly beneficial and promote adaptation and shave time off your body age. I’m talking about benefits like:
- Improved insulin sensitivity and glycemic control
- Reduced markers of inflammation
- Improved mood
- Improved quality of sleep
- Increased alertness and focus
- Enhanced resilience and stress tolerance
- Improved brain power and cognitive function
- Improved markers of cardiovascular health
- Reduced risk of death from all causes
- Improved endurance
- Improved body composition
And basically, all that adds up to supporting increased longevity and optimizing healthspan, which is, in a nutshell, a corollary of reducing your body age.
2019: Going Back to the Future
Move more, move often, and move in a variety of ways. Eat primarily real food, ditch the junk, and experiment with going longer periods without eating. Get outside and connect with nature. Speaking of connecting, spend time with people you care about, like-minded people with similar interests, and people who push you to be your best. Practice stress-management techniques, yet step outside your comfort zone (particularly when it comes to temperatures) to foster growth.
Surely there are other important tools in the toolbox when it comes to reducing your body age—financial fitness and perception of aging are two more that come to mind, for example. That being said, if you’re already consistently taking care of business with these 10 strategies, then let’s just say you’re in really, really good shape.
If you’re not—and I have a feeling I’m speaking to the majority, which also includes ME—then consider starting with one area at a time. Grab some low-hanging fruit. Make it your priority. When you’re nailing it consistently for a few weeks, then consider adding another tool to your toolbox.