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It’s a virtuous circle. Keep sending the message of active living to your genes and they will respond in kind. Do your part and your genes will do theirs.

Control Your Genes with Exercise

Exercise Activates Genes Regulating Fat and Muscle

Intensity Drives Change

A very active friend, a medical professional, is fond of saying that we can change our lifestyle, but we’re stuck with our genes. He gave me a blank stare recently when I asked if he had heard of epigenetics.

Our friend isn’t wrong; he’s just a little behind the science. It is true that genes can’t be changed. The latest research, however, says that genes can be turned on and off with exercise and other lifestyle changes. This phenomenon is called epigenetics.

Dr. Britt Freund, a Dean and Professor in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, made me aware of epigenetics about five years ago—he recommended an intriguing book on the subject—but it is only now that I have something to write about in the realm of self help. 

It is often said that our genes and environment determine how we age and our risk for disease, suggesting that one half of the equation (heredity) is unchangeable. Two recent studies go a long way toward explaining how exercise can have a powerful influence on our genes. 

One of the mechanisms underlying epigenetics is DNA methylation. Every cell in our body contains DNA, which houses our genetic blueprint. We’re all aware of DNA and genes. What we haven’t heard is that only a fraction of our genes are active at any given time, producing proteins that influence a variety of bodily functions. “Methyl groups” (clusters of carbon and hydrogen atoms) control “gene expression,” or whether the gene is active or inactive. During methylation, a methyl group attaches to the gene. Like the automatic speed control on your car, the methyl group governs gene expression, blocking or assisting the message.  

Epigenetics is an exciting breakthrough, because it gives us control we didn’t know we had.

New research from Lund University in Sweden, reported in PLoS Genetics June 27, 2013, described for the first time what happens in fat cells when we exercise. Another study, which we’ll discuss later, looked at changes in muscle cells. Both studies affect obesity and diabetes risk.

Lead researcher Tina Ronn (Lund University Diabetes Center) and her colleagues investigated what happened to the methyl groups in the fat cells of 23 slightly overweight—and inactive—men about 35 years of age when they participated in spinning and aerobic classes twice a week for six months.

By comparing fat cells collected before and after the exercise program, the researchers found that exercise altered the methylation pattern in 7,000 genes (out of 480,000 examined) whose patterns had previously been linked to fat storage and increased risk of obesity or diabetes.

Ronn reported that such changes had never before been studied in fat cells and that they now have a map of the DNA methylome in fat tissue.

Importantly, Ronn and her team were able to confirm the findings by deactivating certain genes and thus reducing their expression in test tubes. The result was less fat storage.  

“Our data suggest that exercise may affect the risk for Type 2 diabetes and obesity by changing DNA methylation of those genes,” senior author Charlotte Ling, an associate professor at Lund University, told The New York Times, explaining that the new findings “are additional proof of the robust effect exercise can have on the human body, even at the level of our DNA.”

Encouragingly, the researchers noted that the influence of exercise on methylation can occur after a single workout. Payback is almost immediate. 

The second study, dealing with methylation in muscle cells, was reported March 7, 2012, in Cell Metabolism.

Intensity Matters

To determine the effect on gene methylation, researchers led by Romain Barnes (Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden) collected muscle biopsies from 14 healthy sedentary men and women before and after exercise on cycle ergometers, at either 40% (low intensity) or 80% (high intensity) of aerobic maximum. Both bouts of exercise were continued until the same number of calories (400) were expended. Muscle biopsies were taken immediately following exercise and again three hours after exercise.

Major changes in the pattern of methylation were seen after just one exercise session. Importantly, they found that change was dose dependent; high intensity exercise caused more change than low intensity exercise. Changes were seen both immediately after and three hours after exercise. The amount of change varied from gene to gene, but was generally greater after “acute exercise.”

“In conclusion,” the researchers wrote “acute exercise leads to transient changes in DNA methylation in adult skeletal muscle. Our finding that the patterns of DNA methylation change…provides further evidence that the epigenetic marks across the genome are subject to more dynamic variation than previously appreciated.”

“We determined the effect of exercise on DNA methylation in human skeletal muscle and provide evidence that acute exercise alters…methylation of exercise-responsive genes in a dose-dependent manner,” the researchers reported.

As in the study of fat cells, several of the genes methlylated in muscle cells after exercise are known to affect metabolism and the risk for obesity and diabetes.

* *  *

Thanks to these Swedish researchers and others, we know that our genes are influenced by the way we live. Both ends of the health equation—heredity and environment—are subject to our control. The more we learn, the better it gets.

A key point in the second study is that the response was dose dependent; the high intensity group showed the greatest change in DNA methylation. My experience is that short hard workouts are also more interesting and more likely to be continued over time. It also seems likely that genes will respond positively to an active life between workouts. Your body tends to mirror your lifestyle.

It becomes clearer every day that the best place to look for help on the health front is in the mirror. With health insurance premiums and deductibles going up and care likely going down, the best healthcare bargain is self care. It’s the only place where the bang for the buck keeps going up. We learn more, train smarter, and get better and better results. 

It’s a virtuous circle. Keep sending the message of active living to your genes and they will respond in kind. Do your part and your genes will do theirs.

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