How to Keep Your Cells Healthy With 4 Lifestyle Tips
When it comes to health and nutrition, most people focus on visible, tangible results. How many inches or centimeters did you drop from your waistband? How many reps could you bench press?
These types of external milestones can be valuable motivators. But they aren’t the end-all be-all indicators of health. For a more holistic approach to health, you have to look inside and ask: How healthy are my cells?
Every living organism is made up of cells, and the human body is no exception. Your body—and everyone else’s—contains roughly 37.2 trillion cells. And just like your body as a whole, these cells can be healthy or, well, less healthy.
Fortunately, you don’t need a degree in human biology to take charge of your body’s cellular health. Keep reading to learn why telomere length helps you measure health and how to keep your cells healthy with four lifestyle habits that support cellular health.
How Do You Even Measure Cellular Health?
Before diving into the rest of this article, let’s take a quick, crash course in cell anatomy. Each cell in the human body has, at its center, a nucleus. The nucleus contains 23 chromosome pairs (for a total of 46 chromosomes).
At either end of each chromosome is a DNA structure called a telomere. As cells age and divide, telomere length becomes shorter and shorter until the cell eventually dies. It’s a natural and inevitable process. So what do telomeres have to do with cellular health?
Well, telomeres don’t shorten at a fixed rate. They get smaller each time a cell divides, sure, but certain lifestyle decisions can shorten telomere length more rapidly. In other words, your diet, exercise habits, and other activities can prematurely age your cells.
And remember, cells are the building blocks of your body. If they prematurely age, so will you. For this reason, many studies exploring cellular health use telomere length as one way of measuring a cell’s health.
Enough about unhealthy cells, let’s talk about prevention. After all, you’re not here for a science lesson—you’re here to learn how to keep your cells healthy.
How to Keep Your Cells Healthy: 4 Cellular Health Habits
There’s a lot of conventional wisdom surrounding healthy living: Drink plenty of water, exercise for 30 minutes each day, wear sunscreen, etc. And a lot of that advice is great. What you may not know, however, is that many of those same lifestyle tips apply to cellular health.
It turns out, a lot of health-promoting activities and habits are healthy because they support health on a cellular level. Makes sense, right? When your cells feel good, you feel good.
Let’s dive into four cellular health habits that will help keep your cells thriving.
- Maintain a Healthy Diet
“Healthy diet” is a vague term that gets thrown around a lot without explanation. And most people only have a vague idea of what constitutes a healthy diet. Fortunately, when it comes to your cells, eating right is pretty straightforward.
In one study, researchers explored the correlation between telomere length and an individual’s adherence to the Mediterranean Diet and other similar diets. These approaches encourage eating primarily whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. On the flip side, individuals following these diets tend to avoid high-sodium foods, sugars (especially processed sugars), and red meat.
The findings speak for themselves—for women, at least. The dietary habits mentioned above were linked to longer telomere lengths in women, but not men. This doesn’t mean men are off the hook, however. In the sample population used in the study, men tended to have worse diets in general and consumed more red meat—the adverse effects of those dietary choices likely “cancelled out” the benefits of healthy eating.
At this point, it’s established that dietary choices can impact cellular health. So, let’s take a look at why.
There are two factors at play: free radicals and antioxidants. There’s a lot to be said about both, but here’s the gist of it. Free radicals are substances that can damage and deteriorate cells. And antioxidants are the substances that protect the body from free radicals.
So where does the Mediterranean Diet come in? As the fat in red meat cooks, it oxidizes which can then introduce free radicals into the body. By reducing your red meat intake, you can help prevent damage to your cells. And when prevention doesn’t work, go for antioxidant support. Fresh fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants. By eating plenty of produce, you can help maintain optimal cellular health.
- Exercise Regularly—And Yes, This Means Cardio
Sometimes even the most avid gym-goers avoid cardio. They’ll happily crank out set after set of curls, squats, and flies. But 30 minutes on the treadmill? Forget about it.
Resistance training (think traditional weight training) is a great way to improve strength and muscle definition, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to support telomere length. To reap the benefits of exercise on a cellular level, you have to include cardio in your workouts. It doesn’t matter if it’s endurance training (jogging, cycling, etc.) or high intensity interval training, just shoot for at least 30 minutes.
If you’re a cardio-phobe, don’t worry—you don’t even have to do it every day to see the benefits. In one study, participants did 45 minutes of cardio three times a week. After only six months, researchers observed longer average telomere lengths in that set of individuals than in subjects doing only resistance training or no exercise at all. That’s right! You can go for a run Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, take a nice, relaxing weekend, and still support your cellular health.
- Don’t Underestimate Sleep
If you ask a random passerby how much sleep is the “right” amount, they’ll probably tell you eight hours per night. And, according to most guidelines, they’d be correct. The amount of sleep a person needs varies, but for most people 7-9 hours a night is sufficient.
But what happens if you sleep less than that? You’ll probably feel pretty lousy—for starters—but consistently sleeping too little can also impact your health on a cellular level.
If you’re sleeping five hours or fewer a night, there’s a good chance your cells are being adversely affected—especially if you’re a man. In one study, the duration of sleep for men was linearly linked to telomere length. Put simply, the less sleep men get, the shorter their average telomere length. And, as mentioned above, shorter telomeres can mean prematurely aged cells.
While the effect of sleep on telomere length in women is less clear cut, it’s still a good idea to tuck in for plenty of sleep each night regardless of gender!
- Practice Mindfulness
Nobody likes being stressed out. It’s frustrating, exhausting, and, as it turns out, bad for your cells. At this point, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that excessive stress has been linked to shorter telomere lengths in adults.
But the effect of your mind on cellular health goes a step further. Not just stress, but a wandering mind—as opposed to being present in the moment—can have a negative effect on your cells, one study suggests. This, of course, can be difficult to measure. In the study, participants self-reported the degree and type of their day-to-day mind wandering. Those who reported more negative wandering—anxious, racing, and defensive thoughts—were found to have shorter telomeres.
If mind wandering is detrimental to cellular health, this raises another question: What can you do to counteract a wandering mind and maintain cellular health?
Let’s say mind wandering is one end of the spectrum—what’s at the other end? Presence of mind. Or, in other words, being present in the moment. There are a number of meditative practices that can help stave off mind wandering and ground you in the present moment, but one of the most popular is mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness can help you stay present and reduce your stress, protecting your cells on two fronts! A win-win for your mental state and your cellular health.
Take Charge of Your Cellular Health
A healthy body starts with healthy cells. Fortunately for you, taking charge of your cellular health isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Now that you know how to keep your cells healthy, give these lifestyle practices a try. Start implementing one (or all) of the above tips in your life to keep your cells healthy and thriving.