Who needs a crystal ball? Recent research suggests we can predict the future just by looking at our telomeres, the protective end caps on our DNA, which are indicators of longevity. The shorter our telomeres, the more vulnerable our chromosomes and the higher our risk of fatal cancer or cardiovascular disease—and of dying younger in general.
Telomeres usually shorten during cell division, which happens throughout our lives—and this process can be accelerated by everyday factors like stress and poor eating and sleeping habits. Fortunately, we can take steps to protect and maintain telomeres. It’s as easy as living healthfully and managing your emotional well-being, according to Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering how telomeres protect chromosomes, and her collaborator Elissa Epel, PhD, a health psychologist. In their book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, they promise that “we can change the way we age, at the most elemental, cellular level.”
Best of all, you could be reaping the benefits by your next birthday. Research shows that making lifestyle changes can have an impact on telomere maintenance in as little as three weeks to four months. Start with this daily schedule, based on Blackburn and Epel’s advice, and you—and your DNA—may feel years younger.
6:30 a.m. – Get your heart pumping for at least 30 minutes.
Exercise is amazing for your cells: It can help ward off inflammation and deterioration—plus, mounting studies suggest it benefits telomeres. Moderate cardio and high-intensity interval training are best, according to research, but the main thing is to get moving. Blackburn suggests dancing around the kitchen as you prep breakfast. “It’s so important to do some sort of physical activity, especially when you feel stressed because that’s when it appears to have the greatest effect on telomeres.”
8 a.m. – Kiss your partner goodbye.
You’ll strengthen your relationship and lower your stress levels. Extra points if you do it in front of the kids: One study found that children who see their parents being affectionate may have longer telomeres.
10:30 a.m. – Did your workout make you hungry? Eat!
But think fuel, not reward, and choose fruit or a hard-boiled egg instead of a muffin. People at a healthy weight tend to have longer telomeres, but pounds don’t seem to matter as much as insulin resistance and belly fat. A person with a waistline that’s wider than her hips has a 40 percent higher risk for telomere shortening over the next five years. It’s more important to eat nutritious foods than to obsess about calories.
11 a.m. – Reframe your stress
If your to-do list seems ten miles long, don’t get frazzled—get fired up. One of Blackburn and Epel’s studies showed that people who saw a stressful task as more of a challenge than a threat had longer telomeres. Give yourself a quick pep talk: “I’ve got this.”
1 p.m. – Lunch on vegetables.
Colorful plant foods like kale, broccoli, yellow onions, tomatoes, and carrots are high in antioxidants that are associated with lower levels of inflammation, an enemy of your telomeres, so make sure they play a starring role in your midday meal.
3 p.m. – Perk up without pop.
The telomeres of people who drank 20 ounces of soda daily showed the equivalent of 4.6 extra years of biological aging, found a team led by Cindy Leung, a nutritional epidemiologist (and a collaborator of Blackburn and Epel’s). Try a mini-meditation break like Blackburn does to make sure she stays focused. “Our research has found that mind wandering is also related to shorter telomeres,” she says.
6:30 p.m. – Go pescatarian for dinner.
Choose salmon, tuna, or another oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. A study that looked at the blood cells of more than 600 middle-aged people found that the higher their omega-3 consumption, the less their telomeres declined over the next five years.
9:45 p.m. – Power down your mind.
Try journaling or doing easy yoga. Epel loves qigong, a Chinese wellness practice that consists of flowing poses; she considers it a moving meditation. Calming activities such as these can make you less likely to stress once you’re stretched out in bed.
10:30 p.m. – Lights out.
And that includes the glowing blue light of your devices, which can disrupt sleep. Studies show an association between rejuvenating slumber and longer telomeres. Research suggests that at least seven hours is the sweet spot for your telomeres—as well as the rest of you.