Back to Fitness: Epigenetics: Does Exercise Change Your Genes?

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John Andersen

Many of you reading this find yourselves in need of a physical change in your life. Perhaps you’re out of energy, out of shape, full of aches, sick with disease, overweight, etc., etc. Although there are a million stories of amazing self-transformation out there, it’s often difficult to believe that we can really change from our current state. The longer you have been in this current rut, the more difficult it is to find a way out. There is no better way to derail progress than by not believing it can be made.

Enter “epigenetics”!

Okay, some of you are already starting to glaze over—bringing genetics and that type of science into a motivational discussion?  You lost me, bro.

But, yes, epigenetics.

I first heard of epigenetics from one of my mentors in the endurance world, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella. I was listening to him on a podcast as he briefly touched on this concept of epigenetics, whereby you can actually change the gene expression of your DNA over time by changing the way you live. He went into the science on it, and although it all makes perfect sense, it blew my mind.

Epigenetics, in short, is the study of changes in gene expression, without any changes to the underlying DNA. So, a change in phenotype happens without a change in genotype. Okay, I lost you again.

We all have our own unique DNA, an incredibly complex strand of genetic information that is present in every single cell in our body. We inherited this DNA from our parents, but it is uniquely our own and is the blueprint for the construction, function, and maintenance of our body. Your height, your eye color, your immune function are all coded in your DNA since the time you were a cute little ball of cells in your mother’s womb.

Now, genes. Genes are simply specific strands of DNA that are responsible for producing a specific protein. You and I have about 23,000 genes in our DNA and all of these function to produce…us!

On the surface, that may sound rather rigid. We have very specific DNA, and the genes in our DNA each create very specific proteins that all together miraculously form our human body. So you get what you get, and you don’t get what you didn’t get. Right?

Epigenetics says wrong.

Long ago, people started to wonder if genes ever change. For example, why do we get certain types of cancers? Is it random bad luck? Or is it possible that certain environmental factors can cause our genes to produce something different than what they used to produce? Epigenetics is simply the study of this phenomenon, a study of changes in gene expression (what the genes are actually making) without any changes to the underlying DNA.

The field of epigenetics is rapidly growing as scientists continue to find how changes can occur in our genes that influence the development of cancers, dysfunction of our immune system and many other diseases. We now know that things like our environment and our diet can eventually change our gene expression.

People like Dr. Cucuzzella are looking at it the other way. If all of these negative changes can lead to negative changes in gene expression–cancer, developmental disorders, neurologic problems, etc.–what about the effect of exercise and a good diet?

Consider the current function of your body. (I’m back to talking to the folks who are finding themselves in a physical rut.) We can make an argument that your body is not currently functioning as well as it could. Perhaps you have a chronic disease. Perhaps you have orthopedic issues. Maybe you’re depressed. Maybe you’re overweight and nothing seems to be changing that.

Now consider the epigenetics view. Your body is in its current state in part because of unchangeable DNA and gene expression, but also in part to very changeable gene expression that is a response to the diet and environmental factors that it has been exposed to thus far. The epigenetics view says that if you change the diet and environmental factors, your body can change. Genetically. Real change.

Epigenetics is just a fancy word describing something our bodies have been doing from the beginning of time. That is, adapting to the circumstances. It is more proof how complex and amazing our bodies are.

So, don’t like where you currently are? You can change. Your body can change. Literally. Improve your diet. Avoid sugars, fake ingredients, and processed foods.

Improve your fitness. Exercise daily. Thirty minutes a few times a week is not really going to cut it.  Change the way you think about your exercise. Walk often. Sit little. Get your heart rate up daily.  Become active.

Consider your life stresses. Often we think we can’t do much about work stress or life stress, but we also usually don’t try or get help with these issues, even though they are usually the biggest hits to our quality of life. Chronic stress is probably not good for your genes!

If you don’t believe you can change, you will most certainly never change. I don’t think we need studies or scientists to tell us that if we change the way we are living, our bodies will respond in kind. But in case you do need it, those scientists have come through for you! Now common sense and science agree: eat right and exercise and you will start to see change. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take work and commitment, and you’re going to hit speed bumps. But change is not only possible, it’s probable.

Now let’s go change some genes!

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