Nature vs. Nurture: How Exercise Changes Your Genes

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Have you ever thought it’s my genetics! That’s why I’m overweight, obsessive compulsive and/or can’t stay away from chocolate, and my brain always feels so fuzzy. Come on now, be honest. I don’t know anyone, including myself, who hasn’t thought that from time to time. Is there such a thing as genetic destiny, though? And can anything override this destiny? Did you know that exercise changes genetics?

I believe that an educated person makes better choices when it comes to health and wellness, so let’s take a closer look at this topic.

exercise improves genetics

Since 2003 and the Human Genome project, people have become more aware of thinking about certain genes and what they do. Have you read about BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes?

These two are the most well known for their association with breast and ovarian cancer.

However, it’s important to note that mutations of genes contribute to disease, not the genes themselves.

Think about it like this. Say a rotten tree falls on your house and crushes the roof. Does that mean that trees cause roof damage?

Nope. It means that trees with disease may fall and may cause damage. If the tree is healthy, all is good. Point is that malfunctioning genes can cause things to go wrong…..but not 100% of the time.

It’s likely, but not inevitable, that malfunctioning genes will increase disease or other
abnormalities.

Is There a So-Called FAT Gene?

A few years ago a gene was discovered in relation to diabetes. If that gene was mutated at a specific spot, it increased the likelihood of you having more fat. Researchers named the gene “fat mass and obesity” (FTO) associated gene, which is unfortunate because it’s not the function of the gene, but rather what happens when the gene doesn’t work.

If you found these FTO genes and they were the mutated ones, then on average you’d
weigh 6.6 pounds more than someone with “normal” genes.

So is that it? If someone has abnormal FTO genes then they’re doomed to have more fat and nothing can be done?

Actually no — there is something that can be done.

I’ll give you three guesses!

What the Fat Gene Study Teaches Us About How Exercise Changes Genetics

Here’s what you need to know from the study.

Everybody had blood taken to be tested for different versions of the FTO gene. BMI, body composition (using dual x-ray absorptiometry, aka DEXA) and waist circumference were also measured.

Researchers measured physical activity by having each participant wear an accelerometer for 7 days straight (24 hours/day). An accelerometer measures how
often and how fast people move.

The question: Is there a connection between fat (obesity), mutations in the FTO gene and physical activity? YES!

The only connection between obesity and this gene mutation was at low activity levels.

Please read that again!

So obesity and BMI can be correlated to specific genetic FTO mutation, but in two of the three cases (mutations) physical activity levels can overcome this connection.

Meaning, if you were inactive and had a mutation in your FTO gene, then you are giving yourself the best chance of being obese.

By changing your FTO gene – a little difficult – or increasing your activity level–much easier to do- you can decrease your chance of becoming obese. Exercise changes genetics!

You may be asking yourself: Isn’t physical activity good for everybody? Yes.

So why bother with the genetic testing?

Good question.

It comes down to how much physical activity you need — if you have one version of the gene you could be less active and maintain normal body weight, but if you have the other version you will have to increase your activity to do the same.

Nature versus nurture—it’s an age old question.

Does nature (genetics) affect who you are? Of course.

Does nurture (environment) affect who you are? Of course.

Both affect each other and who you are. Nature may increase your likelihood of having extra fat.

Final Thoughts

What’s your ace in the hole?

Changing your environment by being physically active!

I hope you’ve gotten some genetic insights, especially about how exercise changes genetics, and that you’ll pass along this information to others. It still amazes me how it all comes down to choices, so choose wisely and live well!

If you feel stuck and need additional support to adopt a new healthy habit or routine, consider working with me. We can partner up in setting goals, drawing on your skills and strengths, and implementing strategies to help you find your way to lasting healthy success.

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For over 15 years, Shelli has been a freelance writer and wellness coach on Joyinmovement. She writes about brain fitness, creating a healthy lifestyle, traveling the world, and making positive habits stick. Stop procrastinating! Take action, join her free newsletter.

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