We are, in many ways, subject to the genes we were born with. In the fitness world especially we tend to think of our genetics as limiting factors, either for the good or bad. When we struggle with specific trouble spots, we blame genetics. Conversely, when someone has little-to-no difficulty gaining muscle or excels at a given sport, we give their genes the credit. An emerging field of study, called epigenetics, though, is actively changing our concept of how genes affect us and, more importantly, how we can affect them.
What is Epigenetics?
The most basic way to explain epigenomes is to think of them as a series of switches. Although you can’t change the genes that you were born with, epigenomes can control the expression of those genes. Through the manipulation of these switches, it is possible to turn off certain genes and turn on others. This allows the body to adapt to any number of factors including stress, diet and nutrition on a very deep level.
Of course, it is no surprise that exercise changes your body. Anyone who has exercised for any period of time has experienced these changes, so what makes the findings associated with epigenomes significant?
The Power of Epigenomes
Scientific understanding of epigenetics is still relatively limited but several high-quality studies help to shed light on what this new discipline may mean for the fitness world.
A 2012 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, for example, observed the effects of strenuous exercise on gene expression. After 20 minutes, the researchers saw the DNA expression of cells change in a way that encouraged muscle growth. Specifically, the DNA now told the cells to produce specialized proteins that build and repair muscle fibers.
In the same year, another study explored the scope of these genetic adaptations. By having cyclists pedal with just one leg and taking muscle biopsies from both legs before and after, the researchers hoped to understand the extent to which exercise impacts inactive muscles. Surprisingly, it was discovered that both legs displayed changes to DNA expression.
Although this study only tested the changes in the subjects’ legs, these findings suggest that the benefits of exercise go far beyond just the exercised muscle group. This emphasizes the fact that exercising one muscle group, for example the legs, can benefit your entire body.
But it is true that some people just seem to struggle with weight loss, or muscle gain, regardless of their workout routine. While there are many factors that can contribute to these challenges, including health conditions, genetics usually play a major role.
A new study suggests that epigenetics may be able to help in this frustrating situation as well. This report was published in the June 2013 issue of The FASEB Journal and invested the efficacy of an exercise program on 107 adolescent males. To do this, the researchers measured the epigenetic responses of each of the subjects. Ultimately, five epigenetic biomarkers were identified that could be used to predict what exercise routine will be most effective for the individual.
These findings are still preliminary and more research is needed but this report offers hope of one day predicting what sort of fitness routine you need to follow to maximize your results.
Epigenetics is still a new field of study and more experimentation is needed to fully understand its impact and usefulness. In the meantime, however, epigenetics offers hope that you can overcome the perceived limits of your genes to reach your fitness goals.
Are you fascinated by the implications of these studies? Please share your thoughts in the comments.