How Genes Can Influence Our Physical Fitness?

With the 2021 presentation of the 2020 Olympic Games finally getting underway, and with indoor fitness studios and gyms finally opening up again after being shut down since last fall (at least here in Ontario), we’ve got physical fitness on our minds! We all know how important exercise is when it comes to optimizing health and wellbeing, not only for our physical fitness, but also our mental wellbeing. This is especially important after the difficult year many of us have had with lock-downs, businesses shutting down, being socially distant from our extended families and friends, being socially quarantined (often times in close quarters) with immediate family, seeing work and school move from lively social environments to computer screens, and of course many of us were affected either directly or indirectly by illness, hospitalizations, and death related to Covid-19.

Our genes can impact various aspects related to physical fitness and can help determine the exercise regimen best suited for our unique genetic makeup. Our genes can help us understand our susceptibility to injury; how quickly we are able to recover after a workout; the impact of exercise on managing Type 2 Diabetes; our pain tolerance; our inherent inclination towards exercise; and our bone health profile. In this column, we’ll go through a few of these examples.

Recovery – All exercise, from weight-training to running, causes “good damage” to muscle fibers, and rest between exercise sessions is required for our muscles to be able to properly strengthen and rebuild. Everyone is unique, and our genetics play a significant role in regulating post-exercise inflammation and fatigue. For understanding how adept our bodies are when it comes to exercise recovery, we can look at genetic markers associated with inflammation and detoxification. Everyone has inflammation and free-radicals produced when they exercise, but some people can clear that away quicker than others. If for example your genes tell you that your body is potentially slow at clearing inflammation, you may find that you benefit from taking longer breaks between sets in the gym, or you may find that natural products, like antioxidants, NAC, or Omega 3 can help with that inflammation. Determining how long it takes for your body to recuperate can be key to preventing injury and building an optimal exercise regimen.

Bone Health – Since we’re all vertebrates, our bones are somewhat important. They keep us upright, and provide structure and support for our nervous system, blood vessels, organs, and muscles. Our bones are constantly being built up and broken down in a process called remodelling, which is vital to keeping our bones strong and healthy. Various types of exercise, including balance training, weight bearing aerobic activity, and strength training, are important to ensure that bone remodelling is occurring properly. By looking at genes that influence bone formation, such as the VDR gene which encodes the Vitamin D Receptor, we can get a better understanding of our risk for bone loss and how we should exercise to optimize our bones’ strength (resistance to fracture), mineral density, structure, and quality.

Motivation – Interestingly, our genes not only influence structural aspects of our bodies like our bones and muscles, but can also influence our behaviour. While some individuals actually have a natural inclination to want to exercise – getting more pleasure from exercise and perceive exercise as requiring less effort – others have a natural inclination to sit on the couch and eat potato chips. Understanding our motivation tendencies allows us to design an exercise plan that will work with, rather than against, our intrinsic motivations. Genes that encode the Leptin Receptor (LEPR) and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) have both been shown to influence exercise motivation and response to exercise and understanding genetic variations in these genes can help us better understand ourselves. While most adults know from experience whether they are motivated to exercise or not, it’s interesting to see what our genes have to say about it. If for example, our genes show that we’re less likely to want to exercise, adding some accountability, like working out with a friend or signing up for a class, can go a long way in keeping us honest and active.

If any of you reading this have taken our LoveMyHealthTM test and have followed any of the recommendations in the physical fitness section of the report, we’d love to hear from you and find out if and how it has helped.

In the meantime, stay active and Go Canada Go!!

Aaron Goldman, PhD
Chief Science Officer