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Exercise Can Change DNA

Can You Change Your DNA for the Better?

exercise and dnaMost people think of DNA as consistent and incapable of change. We like to blame our DNA for the parts about our body and health that we deem out of our control, such as our weight (“I’m big boned!”), our propensity for certain diseases (“My mother had Alzheimer’s, so now I’ll probably get Alzheimer’s”), and even aspects of our personality (“I love pasta; I’m Italian, it’s in my blood!”).

And while, yes, much of our health is determined by the genetic code that we inherit, recent studies have shown that we may have more power than we previously thought to positively influence our genes. Our genetics are incredibly complex, with some genes switched ‘off’ and others switched ‘on’ to ultimately determine our health and more profoundly, who we are as individuals. Most people know that we can activate undesirable genes—such as the genes for Alzheimer’s, or cancer, or even obesity—through lifestyle choices and environmental conditions. But did you know that you can positively influence your genes through exercise?

Exercise Can Change DNA

Studies have found that exercise can change our DNA—and all in under an hour a day! One study asked participants to exercise with one half of their lower body for 45 minutes per day. Participants sat on an exercise bike and pedalled with one leg, and, unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the one pedalling leg grew in muscular strength and size. More surprisingly, they found that the training had “profound effects” on gene expression and DNA methylation in the one active leg and not the other. Methylation can be good or bad; depending on the gene, it helps “repair your DNA, regulates hormones, produces energy, protects against cancer, supports detoxification, keeps your immune system healthy, supports the protective coating along your nerves, strengthens the nervous system and on and on and on.”

The Caveat

The science is unclear, but there is some evidence to suggest that exercise when done to an excessive degree can actually induce DNA damage. One meta-analysis of over 100 studies on the subject of DNA damage and acute exercise found that after a couple days post-exercise, “DNA damage is not observed,” and that the best way to protect your DNA may be stay in the ‘middle ground’ of physical activity: don’t sit for long periods of time, stick to an exercise routine, but don’t overtrain. Another study found that antioxidants, specifically Vitamin E, may protect your DNA against any negative effects induced by excessive exercise. 

How Else Can You Positively Influence Your DNA?

There is some evidence as well to suggest that a meditation practice can positively influence your DNA. One interesting study asked a group of men to engage in a daily meditation practice and found that their seminal quality had improved as a result. The researchers hypothesized that the meditation practice reduced oxidative stress, thus resulting in higher-quality sperm; they go on to say that this may lead to better health outcomes for their children. So, meditating not only improves your DNA, but the DNA of your offspring. 

Another similar study looked at a group of experienced meditators and found that in comparison to an otherwise healthy group of non-meditators, the length of the meditators’ telomeres was on average significantly longer; they also had a smaller percentage of short telomeres in comparison to the non-meditators. And, if you don’t know, telomeres are the ‘caps’ at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes and that prevent premature ageing–so, the longer the better when it comes to telomeres! You can read more about telomeres here

Are These Changes Permanent?

Not much research has been done to investigate whether or not the positive DNA changes induced by exercise–or other ‘methylating’’ lifestyle choices such as eating a nutritious diet or meditating–are permanent. That being said, adopting a regular, life-long exercise and meditation habit certainly couldn’t hurt to suppress ‘bad’ DNA expression, such as cancer and heart disease. If you exercise every day, you will be making a positive daily impact on your gene expression. How cool is that?

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health! 

 Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.

Works Cited
Alda, M., Puebla-Guedea, M., Rodero, B., Demarzo, M., Montero-Marin, J., Roca, M., & Garcia-Campayo, J. (2016). Zen meditation, Length of Telomeres, and the Role of Experiential Avoidance and Compassion. Mindfulness, 7(3), 651–659. 

Dada, R., Kumar, S. B., & Tolahunase, M. (2015). Yoga and Meditation as a Therapeutic Intervention in Oxidative Stress and Oxidative DNA Damage to Paternal Genome. Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy, 05(04). 

Hartmann, A., Nieβ, A. M., Grünert-Fuchs, M., Poch, B., & Speit, G. (1995). Vitamin E prevents exercise-induced DNA damage. Mutation Research Letters, 346(4), 195–202. 

Kunka, J. (2019, January 17). Methylation. Thriven Functional Medicine Clinic. 

Lindholm, M. E., Marabita, F., Gomez-Cabrero, D., Rundqvist, H., Ekström, T. J., Tegnér, J., & Sundberg, C. J. (2014). An integrative analysis reveals coordinated reprogramming of the epigenome and the transcriptome in human skeletal muscle after training. Epigenetics, 9(12), 1557–1569. 

MØLLER, P. E. T. E. R., LOFT, S. T. E. F. F. E. N., LUNDBY, C. A. R. S. T. E. N., & OLSEN, N. I. E. L. S. V. I. D. I. E. N. D. A. L. (2001). Acute hypoxia and hypoxic exercise induce DNA strand breaks and oxidative DNA damage in humans. The FASEB Journal, 15(7), 1181–1186. 

ScienceDaily. (2017, June 15). Meditation and yoga can ‘reverse’ DNA reactions which cause stress, new study suggests. ScienceDaily. 

Timmons, J. (2012). Faculty Opinions recommendation of Acute exercise remodels promoter methylation in human skeletal muscle. Faculty Opinions – Post-Publication Peer Review of the Biomedical Literature. 

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