Yoga, Healthy Diet Improve Key Marker of Aging

Emma Needleman
Updated: 
December 06, 2017

Most people remember healthy lifestyle advocate Dr. Dean Ornish for his ground-breaking work showing that a program of regular yoga combined with a healthy diet can reverse ever severe heart disease. Fewer people may be aware that Dr. Ornish has gone on to show that a healthy lifestyle routine, including yoga and meditation, does even more than that: It may improve levels of telomerase, an enzyme considered a key marker for longevity. And not just by a little—according to Ornish’s study, by as much as 30 percent.

Compared to our ancestors, we’re already living an impressively long time.  But the quest for a longer, healthier life and healthy aging is far from over.  The science of healthy aging is a major field, and the biology behind our lifestyle choices and what we can do to maximize our longevity is constantly being explored.

Most experts agree that, of the factors that we can control, diet and exercise are two of the most important for longevity.  Eating healthful foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, is of optimal importance.  Regular exercise and learning to cope with stress are also important.

What Dr. Ornish demonstrated in his study, these lifestyle factors aren’t just important for keeping your heart strong and ensuring that you get your vitamins.  Maintaining a healthy lifestyle through diet, exercise and stress reduction may actually change the structure of your cells and slow the rapidity of the aging process.

In a pilot study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, Dr. Ornish was able to demonstrate that a healthy lifestyle impacts a key marker for DNA aging: The enzyme telomerase. Telomerase plays a key in longevity, because it is vital to reconstitute telomeres, the DNA caps on the end of chromosomes, which are a major component in how we age.  When our cells divide, as they naturally do, the telomeres become shorter.  But if they shrink too small, cells stop replicating and stop functioning.  The result?  You look and feel older, and your body gives out sooner.

Scientists have discovered that the enzyme telomerase is vital to boost telomeres. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that taking the enzyme as a supplement will make you live longer (or even that it’s safe or practical).

What will work to boost the levels of telomerase in your body naturally, however, appears to be just a healthy diet and regular exercise. In the study published in The Lancet, thirty adult men who followed Dr. Ornish’s healthy lifestyle regimen of a vegetarian diet, yoga and regular exercise increased their telomerase level by 30 percent.  To see just how impressive that is, consider that other studies have found that mice with enhanced levels of telomerase live 40 percent longer.

The catch? Dr. Ornish’s healthy lifestyle program may not be for everyone.  He advocates an extremely low-fat, high-fiber vegetarian diet and regular exercise, as well as yoga and meditation for stress relief.  Here is the protocol used in Dr. Ornish’s study:

  • A diet rich in fruits, vegetables whole grains, legumes & soy.

  • Fat content of their diet limited to 10% of the total calories.

  • Minimal refined sugars.

  • Vitamin supplements and fish oil.

  • Moderate exercise – 30 minutes a day

  • An hour of a daily stress reducing activity, like meditation or yoga.

If this sounds like just too much, keep in mind that all lifestyle changes are best made slowly. Try one or two things, like taking up a daily yoga practice or meditation for stress relief, and as you begin to feel better, you may just find yourself inspired to try more.