Over the past ten to fifteen years, research has taken enormous strides when it comes to health and fitness. We know more now than we ever have about the way that foods and exercise affect our bodies. It’s general knowledge now that exercise makes us fitter, stronger and reduce the risk of life threatening illnesses such heart disease. However, the mechanics of how exercise translate to a healthier life has remained a mystery.
New research suggests that what might be responsible is actually lie in our DNA. Our genome is complicated and dynamic with changes constantly occurring. Dependent on biochemical signals from inside the body, genes can be turned on or off, and their reaction creates physiological responses. Understanding why or how these changes occur is no easy task!
We now know that there are genes that either become more active or grow quieter as a result of physical activity. Epigenetics is when a change has occurred within a gene but the DNA itself cannot be changed. When these changes occur on the outside of the gene it is referred to as methylation. During this process, atoms attach themselves to the gene and change it to be able to receive and respond to different responses from the body.
Research has indicated that methylation patterns directly correlate to lifestyle choice such as what kind of food is consumed and when exercise is undertaken. Dependent on which genes are affected when these changes occur, it can have a positive or negative effect on our health and can either minimize or increase our risk for illness.
Until recently, not much was known about the effect that exercise had on methylation but new research is indicating that the changes in methylation during exercise are immediate due to genes in muscle cells. To find out how long term or regular exercise affects the process a study of 23 men and women was carried out where they performed a series of physical and medical tests such as a muscle biopsy and were then asked to exercise the lower half of their bodies over the course of three months.To overcome some of the nusiance variables in the study as it is difficult to isolate the effect of just exercise rather than other variables such as diet, the volunteers taking part in the study were asked to only exercise one leg. Doing this isolated how exercise affects methylation as only the leg that was exercised would show changes related to exercise only.
Unsurprisingly, the leg that was exercised was stronger at the end of the study than the unexercised leg, showing that exercise created physical improvements. However when looking at the changes in genes due to methylation some interesting results were found. In the exercised leg, there were 5,000 muscle cells that had produced new methylation patterns and most of these were on genes that play a role in metabolism, insulin and inflammation in the muscles while the unexercised leg didn’t show these changes at all.
These results show us a bigger picture as to exactly how exercise is good for us. There are still some areas where further study would be beneficial such as how long or whether these effects would remain if the person stopped exercising or how different types of exercise might affect how these changes occur.
Even though there is still further study to be carried out, these results tell us that through regular exercise we can make changes that affect our bodies right down to our genes, making us healthier and improve our overall quality of life.
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