Can You Change Your DNA in 42 Minutes?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

What if I told you that in less time than you think, you can do something incredibly simple that will extend your life?

We think our DNA is set for life, but it’s not. It shrinks over time and makes us age. Now researchers at the University of California at San Francisco believe that you actually can change and improve your DNA, which could, in turn, extend your life! Though they don’t fully understand the mechanism, they know that tiny pieces of DNA called telomeres protect us by helping to keep chromosomes intact. Stress causes those oh-so-important telomeres to shorten, and the shorter they become, the more quickly our cells age and the more susceptible we are to everything from cancer to heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis — and early mortality. How’s that for a list to avoid?

I got in touch with the lead author of the study, Eli Puterman, PhD, a health psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, and he confirmed that yes, there is increasing evidence that stress is shrinking our DNA, which in turn shortens our lives. In fact, his recent study looked at 63 postmenopausal women, some of whom were carrying significant psychological burdens as the result of having to care for parents or spouses with dementia. But here’s the key: The women were divided into two groups — those who exercised daily and those who didn’t.

Even those in the study who exercised for as little as 42 minutes over three days were protected from the effects of stress on the length of telomeres in their cells. “Those 42 minutes of vigorous exercise appear to be a critical amount for protection,” researchers reported. The study was published in the May 26, 2010, issue of PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed publication of the Public Library of Science.

When I asked Dr. Puterman for his definition of vigorous exercise, he said, “It’s usually defined as activity that causes you to breathe hard and fast and sweat while your heart rate rises. While you’re performing vigorous exercise, you won’t be able to speak more than a few words without pausing for breath.”


Stress abounds these days. As the economy limps along, grown kids, unemployed or underemployed, have moved back in with parents… adults find themselves taking care of their children and their ailing parents at the same time… wars are multiplying. Worry seems to be everywhere. But what Dr. Puterman is telling us is that by getting up on our feet for less than one hour and a half a week and getting our bodies moving at a fairly good pace, we’ll have gone a long way toward relieving the harm that all that worry does to our health.

Does vigorous exercise have the same effect on men and on younger people of either gender? It almost certainly does, Dr. Puterman told me, adding that this will be the subject of further studies. For one thing, he said, researchers want to find out whether exercising helps young adults build up extra amounts of the enzyme telomerase that rebuilds and lengthens telomeres so that it could be stored by the body and used in the future.

My advice: While researchers continue their studies, lace up your sneakers, grab a windbreaker, get yourself moving — and protect that DNA!


Eli Puterman, PhD, health psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Health and Community of the Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco.