Dr. Eli Puterman on stress, aging, and physical activity

Career Highlights

  • Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Health
  • Michael Smith Foundation for Health and Research Scholar
  • 2018 Recipient of the Curt P. Richter Award
  • K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award from NHLBI
  • 2015 Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research Neil Miller New Investigator Award
  • Secured over $2.6M of research funding as PI or co-PI

Speaking with Dr. Eli Puterman, School of Kinesiology researcher and professor of KIN 489 – Psychobiology of Physical Activity, it’s clear he has a real passion for his work. For some time now, he’s been seeking to understand how stress, aging, and exercise work together. “As I moved through my education, and learning that long-term psychological stress has a negative effect on our health, I became interested in the accumulated experiences of stress across the lifespan and how they may ‘get under the skin’, so to speak, to advance aging,” he says.

His research hasn’t focused exclusively on one period or phase in our lifetime, but spans the entire spectrum of our health span. “From a wide lens perspective, the idea of chronic stress comes in many forms. It comes from early life experiences, including neglect, bullying, abuse, family issues, etc. Then when you emerge as an adult, we also have experiences in adulthood that are traumatic – the loss of parents or spouses, financial stress, discrimination, lack of control, and so on. But what I’m interested in is the whole spectrum of these stress experiences and how it affects the aging process, because they’re all really deeply connected. These experiences accumulate across the lifespan and they build up. Our work published in 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that the accumulation of stress in early childhood and through adulthood can impact the length of our telomeres later in life.”

It’s not all about stress for him, though, but how exercise and lifestyle behaviours can impact our level of stress and change the length of our healthspan and lifespan. Eli also began looking closely at types of behaviours that reduce the negative effects of stress that lead to illness and disease. He wanted to know: What if you’re fit and a regular exerciser, does it dampen this negative impact of stress? Or, equally, what if you take someone who is really stressed out and who doesn’t move enough, can you teach them some ways of exercising to shift and change the outcome?

Eli just completed a momentous study on caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or a dementia-related disorder to determine whether exercise could alleviate some of the stress they were experiencing and lengthen their telomeres (the DNA-protein caps at the ends of each of our strands of DNA. Shortened telomeres are one indication of aging cells and early disease). Eli and his team conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine whether six months of exercise could reverse this cellular aging in previously inactive, highly stressed adults. The results suggest significant improvements in perceived stress levels, traditional health markers, like BMI and cardiorespiratory fitness, and lengthened telomeres, are published online in Psychoneuroendocrinology, to appear in print in December 2018, and they earned him the 2018 Curt P. Richter Award.

When asked where his interest in all of this came from, he laughs. “I have an undergraduate degree in both psychology and physiology, and after my psychology degree, I believed that I would become a clinician who dabbled in research. Then in my Masters and PhD, my passion for research grew, and I realized I loved research one thousand times more than clinical work,” he says with a laugh. He started taking courses with health psychologists who were looking at the biological factors of stress, when the questions he really wanted to answer started forming. “I wanted to know how much stress mattered if everything else in your life was in order – diet, exercise, and lifestyle. I just became fascinated by it and ended up being in this field that integrates my two undergraduate degrees.”
All of this research unequivocally informs his life outside of his research, and he does his best to juggle his career and family responsibilities with an active lifestyle. “The benefits of exercise aren’t arguable. I’m a physically active person myself. Until I had my son three years ago, I was working out 6-7 days a week.”

Now that his son is three years old, Eli says he’s getting back into his previous exercise routine. “I’m finally not tired all the time and I’m able to exercise 4-5 times a week again.” Eli uses an app to complete High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts in his condo’s gym. “It’s a full-body work out and it’s different every time. Many people think there’s only one way to get fit and that’s through a gym and that’s not true,” he says. “We as humans generally haven’t figured out yet that we make these big massive plans to change who we are and we often struggle with following through with it. We tell ourselves we’re going to become exercisers five times a week, and then we go to a gym and we’re lifting weights that are way too heavy or attending an aerobic class that is too intense, and we think ‘the gym hurts.’ Or we are unable to immediately transform from a zero days a week exerciser to a five times a week one without considering how it fits into our schedules. Then, soon enough, we don’t go anymore. We set really unrealistic goals.”

Eli is dedicated to his weekly exercise routine not just for himself, but for his family. “When I started doing research in this world of exercise, and reading all the articles about it – even if I already kind of knew – that’s when I started taking my exercise and my movement much more seriously, and it became incorporated into my psyche that it was more about my health and what I owe to my family than for vanity purposes.”

Eli says that now, he exercises for his son. “I’m a 45-year old father of a three-year-old, and I want to be able to be there for my son when he’s 18 and wants to go on hikes. I want him to love moving. I see it already, he loves running, he loves being chased, he loves cycling on the Seawall, and I want to be a parent that moves with him.”