“Do Our Genes Influence Our Desire to Exercise?” was the title of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine. Quoting Scandinavian scientists, the article claims “differences in exercise behavior were about 60 percent attributable to genes.” The study apparently indicated that your genetic make up might give you an urge to exercise or not. As I researched genetics and exercise, I discovered the rapidly emerging field of epigenetics.
DNA and the Epigenome
Your DNA sets basic physical instructions for your body’s cells, but the foods you eat, stresses you endure and toxins you encounter all can affect your DNA.
A secondary code of chemical marks called the epigenome attached to genes tells them what to do. Your epigenome is relatively stable, but can change. Lifestyle choices such as diet, smoking and drug use can have lasting effects on how your body works.
Basically, epigenetics is the study of alterations in gene activity that don’t imply changing the genetic code. The chemical marks don’t change a gene, it changes the activity of the gene, and you pass these changes down to successive generations.
Duke University gene researcher Randy Jirtle says, “The thing I love about epigenetics is that you have the potential to alter your destiny.”
Several studies have established that lifestyle choices can definitely affect your genetic predispositions, especially diet, stress and drugs.
Diet produces the significant chemicals that affect epigenetic codes. Folic acid, for instance, produces epigenetic molecules that turn off many unwanted genes. Broccoli and garlic are good sources of other types of chemical tags in the epigenome.
The Preventive Medicine Research Institute studied 30 men with prostate cancer. Instead of the usual medical treatment, for three months they underwent a routine of moderate exercise, regular stress management and healthy diet. When the research team later tested the men’s prostate biopsy samples and discovered that 453 cancer-related genes were turned down and 48 other genes turned up.
Scientists suspect your grandparents set certain DNA referees that remain active in your body today. Jirtle emphasizes that your healthy choices about diet and avoidance of harmful drugs can affect your children and grandchildren, and he believes that, “Everyone has the responsibility to optimize your epigenome.”