Does physical activity moderate the effects of psychosocial stress on biological aging and inflammation in humans?

Lead: Robert Tennyson

Project Summary:

Psychosocial stress negatively impacts inflammation, immune function, and cellular aging, predisposing individuals to illness, injury, and worsened mental health. Increased physical activity, such as sports training, can positively impact these same systems. However, it is not always clear how the human body responds when psychosocial stress and physical activity occur simultaneously. Some studies indicate that physical activity protects against the negative impacts of psychosocial stress. Still, others highlight a troubling feedback loop in which high levels of physical activity (particularly in competitive circumstances) amplify the effects of psychosocial stress.

This project seeks to improve our understanding of how psychosocial stress impacts student-athletes by examining the associations between psychosocial stress, inflammation, and cellular aging and comparing them to the general student population. Specifically, this project addresses the research question: How does psychosocial stress impact inflammation and cellular aging in student-athletes, and does this differ from other students? Psychometric assessments and minimally invasive dried blood spots are being collected from a sample of student-athletes (N=100) and non-athlete students (N=100). We will use these dried blood spots to assess immunity and inflammation via multiple biomarkers (e.g., C-Reactive Protein) and cellular aging via telomere length. Addressing this research question should provide a unique and novel insight both into psychosocial stress and student-athlete well-being and the interactions between psychosocial stress, physical activity, and human biology more broadly.

Open Science Frameworks:

Testing for Evidence of High Altitude Adaptations Among Endurance Athletes

Lead: Katie Rainsberger


People who spend early life at high altitude have an increased capacity for aerobic work due to developmental adaptations to hypoxic environments. Since the effects of altitude on aerobic performance became evident after the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, altitude training has been implemented to increase red blood cell carrying capacity and improve performance. However, it is unclear how early development at altitude and current training at altitude may differently advantage endurance athletes. In order to test for possible mechanisms by which altitude enhances endurance performance, this research compares personal records and biomarkers of oxygen carrying capacity among endurance athletes who experienced early development at altitude or sea-level and are currently training at altitude or sea-level. The study aims to determine if the altitude in which athletes developed and are currently training at will be associated with faster gender-adjusted personal records and greater lung capacity. I conducted a cross-sectional observational study with 23 endurance athletes in Seattle, WA and Boulder, Colorado. Participants self-collected chest circumference (CC) at maximum inhalation and completed online questionnaires about running performance, family history, and personal motivations for competing. I devised a gender-adjusted personal record percentile score for each subject’s 5k times based on the top 500 US men’s and women’s 5k times recorded during the 2019 season. This presentation discusses the results on differences in personal records and CC in relation to early development and current training altitude. I examined athlete’s motivation for competing through the qualitative analysis of open-ended interview responses to explore how motivation works synergistically with physiological biomarkers. These findings will be discussed in terms of existing research and consideration for endurance training at altitude and sea-level.

Examining the Influence of Psychosocial Stress on Telomere Length in NCAA Collegiate Swimmers

Lead: Anamika Nanda



Regular physical activity protects against cellular aging, but a recent study found shorter telomere length (TL) in professional swimmers compared to less active controls. Shorter TL is associated with increased cellular senescence and functional decline with age, suggesting swimmers may be at increased risk for age-related morbidity. Previous studies reported competitive swimmers face high levels of psychosocial stress, which, in turn, is posited to accelerate TL shortening. We hypothesize that competitive collegiate swimmers experience increased psychosocial stress, leading them to have shorter TL despite their active lifestyles.We are conducting a mixed-methods study to examine whether TL differs between Division-1 and Division-3 NCAA swimmers (N=20 respectively) and their non-athlete counterparts (N=20) and if differences in TL is associated with psychosocial stress (Total N=60). Collegiate swimmers face a unique set of stressors to perform for scholarships and professional opportunities while simultaneously continuing their responsibilities as students. Accordingly, we are measuring overall psychosocial stress (Cohen’s Perceived Stress Scale; PSS) to compare swimmers and non-athletes as well as sports-related psychosocial stress (The Student Athletes’ Motivation toward Sports and Academics Questionnaire; SAMSAQ) to compare D-1 to D-3 swimmers. Further, we are conducting semi-structured qualitative interviews to better contextualize how student-athletes perceive how the psychosocial stress they experience impacts their lives and performance. We expect swimmers to report higher levels of overall psychosocial stress (PSS) and have shorter TL compared to non-athletes. Further, we expect that D-1 swimmers will report higher levels of psychosocial stress (SAMSAQ) and have shorter TL compared to D-3 swimmers.

Is There a Positive Association Between Aerobic Capacity and Telomere Length?

Lead: Scott J. Gustafson


Habitual physical activity is associated with longer telomeres, and researchers posit that this relationship protects and enhances health and wellbeing. However, it is unclear what mechanisms underlie this association. Telomeres are DNA sequences that cap the ends of chromosomes and shorten with age and cellular proliferation. As these protective caps shorten, it leads to cellular apoptosis and functional decline. Thus, clarifying this relationship between physical activity and telomere length (TL) may improve our understanding of how physical activity improves health. I will be testing the hyporthesis that aerobic capacity is positively associated with TL. Aerobic capacity increases with physical activity, enhancing our ability to deliver energy and nutrients to our cells, reducing cellular damage and aging. Therefore, I predict that increased aerobic capacity, as measured by Forced Vital Capacity (FVC), will predict longer TL in young adults. I will be investigating physical activity, FCV, TL, and several covariates in a target sampe of 200 young adult participants. To ensure a range of physical activity and FCV, I will include collegiate student-athletes and non-athletes. I will measure FCV via self-collected chest circumference at maximum inhalation and exhalation and TL via qPCR with DNA extracted from dried blood spots. Participants will either collect their own data via a take-home kit or via in-person collection. While much of my data is available, I will publicly pre-register all of my finalized analyses before conducting any tests. If I find a positive association between FCV and TL, we can infer that longer telomeres may stem from mechanisms in the cardiovascular system. If we don't find any associations, improvements in cardiovascular function may not be a central influence on TL, and we should look into other potential influencers that come from physical activity.