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Exercise May Remodel Your DNA, Study Says

People in spin class

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study showed that exercise produced changes in the epigenetic information of skeletal muscles.
  • These changes are in parts of the genome linked to disease.
  • Previous research also emphasizes that exercise can significantly lower disease risk, particularly because it improves the immune system response.

Everyone knows exercise has a number of health benefits. It has a positive impact on everything from cardiovascular function and flexibility to mental health and weight management. Overall, the effects of exercise are far-reaching and impact every system in the body.

Now, research shows exercise benefits may be even more far-reaching than we imagined. According to a recent study in Molecular Metabolism, exercise may even change your DNA in key ways that can boost resilience and lower disease risk.

About The Study

Researchers recruited eight young, healthy men and had them undertake an endurance exercise program that included 60 minutes of spin classes 5 days a week for 6 weeks. Using biopsies of skeletal muscle tissue taken before and after the study period, they found that the training created changes in the activity of the muscle gene enhancers.

That means it caused shifts in gene expression, the process in which instructions in the DNA are converted to action. These shifts took place in areas of the genome associated with disease development, which means exercise may play a significant role in how genes adapt to reduce the risk of illness.

Although the study has limitations due to its very small participant number, the researchers suggested this could be a strong first step toward understanding how exercise can provide advantages all the way down to the genomic level.

More Disease-Fighting Benefits

Exercise also has been shown in numerous studies to lower disease risk through a breadth of mechanisms. For instance, exercise reduces inflammation, improves cardiovascular and pulmonary function, helps prevent obesity, promotes higher bone density, and lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Another notable benefit is better immune system function because exercise can modulate an immune response thanks to a number of potential effects. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that exercise may help flush bacteria out of the lungs, and it could increase the number of antibodies and white blood cells in the body—the immune system’s main way to fight disease.

The NIH adds that exercise can also slow the release of stress hormones like cortisol. This is important because, while in the short term cortisol may actually help immune response, chronically elevated levels can lead to immune dysregulation, research suggests.

Just Get Moving

Although the recent study focused on endurance exercise, you do not need to go through a regimented, formal training program to get an immune boost, says Kate Ayoub, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy and health coach at Own Your Movement.

Instead, start small and work your way up. Talk with a personal trainer or physical therapist about what type of program might be right for you and then run everything by a healthcare provider.

You want to ensure that you are not embarking on an exercise regimen that will put you at risk for injury. Likewise, just because you might have been active when you were younger does not mean that those same exercises or sports are right for you today.

Kate Ayoub, DPT

You need to reset by letting go of the comparison to your former active self and creating a new, fresh starting point instead.

— Kate Ayoub, DPT

“When you start with big goals or an idea of what you should be doing, that can feel overwhelming,” Ayoub says. “It’s also difficult if you used to be more active and you haven’t been for a while. You need to reset by letting go of the comparison to your former active self and creating a new, fresh starting point instead.”

Often, that means simply moving more throughout the day. For example, go for a few short walks or stretch if you have been sitting for 1 hour, Ayoub suggests. Begin to build off that habit and see movement as an enjoyable pursuit.

Mindset Makes the Difference

Once you are in the habit of exercising, you can begin to progress by adding different types of activity and taking on workouts that are longer duration, suggests personal trainer Kourtney Thomas, CSCS. It is also helpful to include both aerobic exercise and strength training in a weekly routine.

Kourtney Thomas, CSCS

Consistency, motivation, and efficacy will always come down to exercising because you want to, not because you think you should.

— Kourtney Thomas, CSCS

Often, that sense of forward momentum can help your mindset as well, she says. And exploring different exercise options can not only challenge your muscles, but it can also keep the activity motivating and fun.

“Many people force themselves to exercise because they think they should because it’s good for them,” says Thomas.

For example, you may struggle with immune health and try exercise as a way to improve your resilience. That’s not a bad reason, Thomas says, but make sure what you are doing is enjoyable, too.

“Consistency, motivation, and efficacy will always come down to exercising because you want to, not because you think you should,” she says. “Find what fires you up and go from there.”

What This Means For You

We have long known that exercise is beneficial. But now research shows it may change your body down to the genomic level when it comes to disease prevention, so it's important to move around regularly. Look for fun ways to incorporate movement into your everyday life. And, be sure you talk to a healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise regimen.

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Article Sources
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  1. Williams K, Carrasquilla GD, Ingerslev LR, et al. Epigenetic rewiring of skeletal muscle enhancers after exercise training supports a role in whole-body function and human healthMol Metab. 2021;53:101290. doi:10.1016/j.molmet.2021.101290

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Benefits of exercise. Updated August 27, 2021.

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine; MedlinePlus. Exercise and immunity. Updated August 5, 2021.

  4. Morey JN, Boggero IA, Scott AB, Segerstrom SC. Current directions in stress and human immune functionCurr Opin Psychol. 2015;5:13-17. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Published 2018.