We all know that exercise is good for us, but many of us don’t do as much exercise as we would like. A new study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm may give us another reason to get up and move. Their study showed how exercise changes our genes.
Published in the December journal Epigenetics, the researchers wanted to see exactly what happens to our genes after exercise. They designed a study to just exercise one leg over a three-month period, then compare the genes in the muscles cells of the exercised leg vs. the non-exercised leg.
First though, let’s explain the term “epigenetics”. Our genes are long strands of DNA and determine many fixed characteristics like our eye and skin color, and have a strong influence on variable characteristics, like our lifelong health. Our genes influence whether or not we might develop certain diseases, for example, breast cancer.
We all have both potentially “good” genes and “bad” genes, but many of these genes just sit there in our DNA but do not function, which is often a good thing. For example, if we have a gene that predisposes us to a certain cancer, we hope that particular gene does not function.
But our genes themselves we are stuck with—we can’t change the actual genes themselves—but through the way we live, we can strongly influence whether a certain “bad” gene actually functions (“expresses”) or not. We can do things through our diet and lifestyle that influences “good” genes to express, and “bad” genes to stay silent and not function.
Epigenetics includes the way genes are influenced to either work (express) or not. One way our genes are influenced is through a process of “methylation”, which is the attachment of a so-called methyl groups (-CH3, one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms) to the gene. You might think of these methyl groups as mollusks or barnacles that attach to the outside of the long gene strands. Sometimes these methyl groups cause the gene to express, but sometimes the methyl groups block the gene function.
The Swedish study published in Epigenetics, took 23 healthy men and women and had them pedal a specially equipped bicycle that only worked one leg. They pedaled 45 minutes, four times a week, for three months. Before and after this period, muscle biopsies were done on each individual, comparing the two legs.
When the researchers did sophisticated analysis of the DNA strands of the muscle cells, they found over 5000 locations on the gene that had different methylation patterns in the non- vs. the exercised leg. Many of the methyl groups they discovered are known to be gene “enhancers” which influence how our body uses our energy, how our insulin responds to sugar, and the level of inflammation in our muscles. The genes in the non-exercised leg were not changed.
So if you need another reason to push yourself to exercise, particularly now during the holiday season, you might think on the molecular level, about how your actual genes are being helped to function better.
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