It’s not breaking news that exercise is healthy for us; it’s common knowledge that it helps reduce stress, reduces the risk of diseases and helps our bodies operate in the most efficient way. But what’s never been explored before is just how exercise works its magic. Recent DNA research on the effects of exercise digs a bit deeper into the subject. It’s uncovered that exercise may be altering the shape and function of our genes—putting us on an overall track for better health.
Whoa—let’s back up a second. Science already tells us that genes are incredibly dynamic. While you inherit your genes, they evolve over time, turning on or off and reacting to signals that your body sends. Genes that are “on” then create proteins. And then a bit of a domino-effect occurs, with these proteins triggering responses from elsewhere in the body. And so on.
Here’s where exercise comes in. Exercise can cause genes to turn on and off. This process, of genes changing due to a behavior like exercise, is referred to as epigenetics. The DNA code itself is not changed, but modifications made on top of the DNA (like the addition of methyl groups, for example) can alter the way a gene is expressed. In other words: “In methylation, clusters of atoms, called methyl groups, attach to the outside of a gene like microscopic mollusks and make the gene more or less able to receive and respond to biochemical signals from the body.
Methylation patterns change depending on your lifestyle. Your diet, the air you breathe, pollutants—all these elements can impact methylation. In turn, your genes may respond by creating different types of proteins. And, it’s this nitty gritty detail that can lead to bigger changes in health.
This is what fascinates scientists, it’s this idea that methylation can have both short-term and long-term effects on our health. In a 2014 study, researchers in Stockholm studied 23 young, healthy men and women. The study participants were asked to exercise half of their lower bodies for a three-month time period, such as bicycling with just one leg. By exercising just half of their bodies, scientists isolated the impact that exercise has versus “routine” methylation changes that would be happening otherwise.
Here’s what they found: the exercised leg had radically different methylation patterns than the non-exercised leg. The impacted genes play a key role in stamina, insulin and inflammation. Yet, they were only changed on the exercised leg in the study.
Like so much research, this is just the beginning of discovery. It results in just as many questions as answers. For example, how long do these changes last? How do different types of exercise affect these changes?
But one thing we do know: lifestyle choices, like exercise, do play a significant role in our health and how our genes operate. Take your DNA into consideration next time you’re tempted to miss that gym class.