Telomeres, the non-coding ends of linear chromosomes, are thought to be an important mechanism of individual variability in performance. Research suggests that longer telomeres are indicative of better health and increased fitness; however, many of these data are correlational and whether these effects are causal are poorly understood. Experimental tests are emerging in medical and laboratory-based studies, but these types of experiments are rare in natural populations, which precludes conclusions at an evolutionary level. At the crossroads between telomere length and fitness is telomerase, an enzyme that can lengthen telomeres. Experimental modulation of telomerase activity is a powerful tool to manipulate telomere length, and to look at the covariation of telomerase, telomeres and individual life-history traits. Here, we review studies that manipulate telomerase activity in laboratory conditions and emphasize the associated physiological and fitness consequences. We then discuss how telomerase"s impact on ageing may go beyond telomere maintenance. Based on this overview, we then propose several research avenues for future studies to explore how individual variability in health, reproduction and survival may have coevolved with different patterns of telomerase activity and expression. Such knowledge is of prime importance to fully understand the role that telomere dynamics play in the evolution of animal ageing.This article is part of the theme issue "Understanding diversity in telomere dynamics".