The Fit Student—Last Swallow of Sweet Potato Pie

The day Papa dies marks the day my telomeres shrink.

But let’s backtrack.

Daily, I munch flaxseed, fruits, veggies, bran, and beans—yes, fiber.  (Fiber-bombs scrub small intestines in ways worthy of bowl-selfies.)   I sleep 8 ½ hours, weightlift, shadow-box, and eat like David Suzuki fasting after a Burger King binge.  Despite all that, nausea and sleepiness haunt me.  Last week, I dozed thirty-aching-hours straight.

Yet, I aim to secure a career; to earn six-figures while keeling over cans ‘til quittin’ time—toilet-bowls my makeshift pillows.  The first step?  Stop my gut’s knock-outs.

One reason for angry guts?  Stress.  Stress damages cells and dumps debris, says Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel (2017).

Not long ago, I went through half-a-decade of stress—spacey, shaky, too daffy to chitchat.  I’ve since cured myself, but my body’s still sweeping the trash.  Yet, even resilient people get attacked with panic.  Author and M.D. Dr. Daniel G. Amen got slapped with panic when his loved one passed.  And one day too, my Papa will pass.

But Papa’s my hero.  When I went hungry, he splurged on groceries—no cap on the grocery bill.  That is, until he spotted ribeye steaks heaped inside my shopping cart.   Months later, I got struck with pneumonia, flattened face-down on a bench, strangers murmuring about an ambulance.   Moments later, Papa drove up and sped us off to the Diner Deluxe for sweet potato pie.  Later still, when I ran out of “leg-gas” from riding my bike for miles, I laid roadside, helpless.  That is, until Papa showed up, hauling me straight-away for steak and cheesecake at a pizzeria.

Once, as I awaited on the roadside for Papa, a policewoman nudged me, “Are you okay?”  She forbade me to sleep on the sidewalk.  Yet, I had no energy to stand.  The solution?  A heart monitor maybe.  Or perhaps bus not bike.  But for now—and forever—Papa.

But like all humankind, Papa will one-day pass.  I fret that day—the loneliness, the heartache, the stress, the loss.  And stress shrinks telomeres.

According to the American Psychological Association, telomeres are the tiny caps at the tips of your DNA strands.  When stress shortens your telomeres, you age and face health risks.   With aging, you get more prone to sickness “that can spread inflammation through the body like a fire…” (Blackburn & Epel, 2017, p.  176).

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel talk about telomeres—how exercise keeps them long and how stress snubs them short—in their book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer:

  • Stress harms telomeres; exercise helps: “Stress can shorten telomeres, but exercise shields telomeres from some of stress’s damage” (p. 183). “For telomere health, you need to get regular exercise …” (p. 180).
  • Exercise helps even extreme stress: Psychologist Eli Puterman reported, “The more [high-stressed] women exercised, the less their stress ate away at their telomeres” (p. 183).
  • Yes, exercise keeps telomeres long: “Sedentary people have shorter telomeres than people who are even a little more active” (p. 177).
  • Plus, exercise benefits cells: “After exercise, when your body is recovering, it is still cleaning up cell debris, making cells healthier and more robust than before exercise” (p. 179).
  • Cardio especially matters for telomeres: “Those who increased their aerobic fitness the most had greater increases in telomerase activity” (p. 178).
  • Mixing exercises gives huge payout for telomeres, too: “The more categories of exercise—from walking to biking to strength training—that people engaged in, the longer their telomeres” (p. 178).
  • In general, a healthy lifestyle stops stress from snipping telomeres: “The more you can practice good health habits—effective emotion regulation, strong social connections, good sleep, and good exercise—the less that stress hurts your telomeres,” says psychologist Eli Puterman (as cited in Blackburn & Epel, 2017, p. 185).

So, the day your hero passes, don’t keel over ‘til quittin’ time, plotting your last swallow of sweet potato pie.  No!  Toughen up your telomeres on treadmills instead.

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