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Exercise to Improve Your Jeans and Your Genes

Most people know that exercising regularly has many benefits such as building strength and endurance, helping you maintain a healthy weight, and strengthening our bones. The list goes on and on. But did you know that it can actually improve our genes? Well, sort of.

A 2022 study conducted by researchers from Washington University that was published in the Journal of Scientific Reports found that when comparing identical twins, those siblings who were more active had a lower risk of metabolic syndrome and lower body mass indexes (BMI). It makes sense that people who exercise are more fit than those who don’t. What was truly interesting, however, was that it also showed differences in their epigenomes.

A quick biology class refresher: Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is coded genetic information within our cells using four chemical bases arranged in pairs. These pairs look like rungs on a long, twisted ladder called a double helix. The DNA gives instructions on how to make proteins that interact with your body. These are the biological instructions that make all of us unique. DNA, along with the instructions it contains, is passed on from parent to child.

Epigenetics is a branch of biology that studies how behaviors and environmental conditions affect the way genes are expressed. Think of it this way. If DNA, the cellular stuff that makes us uniquely us, is the map. Epigenetics is the way we read the map. So, by exercising, we are not really changing our genetic makeup, but we are altering the expression of those genes and which genes are turned on or off.

Back to the study: The study involved 70 sets of identical twins and lasted seven years. Measurements such as BMI and waist circumference were taken pre- and post-study. In addition, fitness trackers were used to monitor activity levels, and participants were asked a series of questions regarding their lifestyle and environment. The twins were also given cheek swabs to test cellular differences. Those with higher levels of exercise activity, more than 150 minutes per week, showed improvements not only physically but on a cellular level as well.

How do you actually “exercise” your genes? The two primary ways to induce epigenetic change are DNA methylation and histone modification (Don’t worry, I also had to look this up). First is DNA methylation. Working out affects not only your muscles but also your heart and so on. It also triggers certain biochemical reactions within the cells themselves. This includes certain molecules that communicate with your DNA, which can lead to an increase in gene activity. Which in turn can turn on or off the expression of certain genes, some of which are associated with metabolism and inflammation. The other mechanism of epigenetic change is histone modification. Histones are proteins that DNA wrap around and are important for gene expression. Exercise can also alter these histones by signaling DNA to wrap more or less tightly, effectively hiding certain genes and making them less likely to be expressed.

The crazy thing about epigenetics is that there is evidence that these changes may have very long-lasting effects, including a reduced risk of chronic diseases, improved mental health, and even a slowing down of the aging process. Crazier still, these benefits may even be passed down to future generations and influence your children’s and grandchildren’s health.

Remember, these were identical twins with the same DNA. So, if genes are the only factor in how you look, etc., they should still be identical both on the inside and outside. But they weren’t. The twin that exercised had lower epigenetics markers for metabolic syndrome and other health-related factors. Keep in mind that many lifestyle and environmental factors, such as sleep, stress, diet, and smoking, among others, can affect epigenetic patterns. So, while your family history may indicate strong odds of getting a particular disease, taking care of yourself through exercise and a good diet can greatly influence whether those genes will be activated.