Understanding the Epigenetic Effects of Exercise
As is true for so many things in this life, the best answer is the simplest answer. This is concept is known as Occam's razor, named after William of Ockham, who posed that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. And Occam's razor is not lost on the body; it is not lost on health and longevity.
In the health and longevity community, we hear a lot about epigenetics, and for good reason: epigenetics are a road-map of health that we draw and we write as we go--as we live. Many people refer to DNA and genetics as a road map, and if so, epigenetics allows us to alter that road-map. With epigenetics we can not just create new routes, but we can create new destinations. This is no exaggeration. Basically, epigenetics works as an "on/off" switch attached to each gene. Through lifestyle, chemical exposure, diet...that is, our DNA interacting with the world, genes are turned on or off, for better or for worse. These changes can occur before birth in utero, and they can be passed on intergenerationally. What does epigenetics have to do with health and longevity? Everything. What does epigenetics have to do with Occam's razor? Everything.
New research just came out from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which largely and scientifically confirms what we already know: that exercise produces positives changes to our unique individual genetic make up. Exercise is free, it is easy, and it is available to everyone. Oh yeah, and there is no substitution to it. No diet, no supplement, no anything can replace the positive effects of exercise on the genome. Nothing you can buy can replace the positive effects of regular, sustained exercise; even walking.
In a paper titled A six months exercise intervention influences the genome-wide DNA methylation pattern in human adipose tissue, published in PLoS One, the NIH finds that genetic markers of Type 2 Diabetes could be altered through exercise. The study took 23 healthy men with a previous low level of physical activity and had them participate in a 6 month exercise routine. Taking a genetic array (sample) before and after the six months, researchers found positive changes in 18 obesity and 21 type 2 diabetes candidate genes--genes that are believed to contribute (to make you "genetically predisposed to") obesity and diabetes.
The Influence of Exercise on our DNA
Of course, we all know that exercise is good for us, so why is this research important? The research is important for two main reasons. One, it is important because assumptions are great, but scientific validation is paramount. Two, it is important because it demonstrates the malleability of the body and shows how making small, positive changes can have profound positive changes in our genes and in our lives, and what genes we pass on should we have children. This research gives us power to change.
In a way I find it a curse and a blessing that activity has been reduced to exercise in the modern lives that we live. It is a curse because movement is natural, and humans are--literally--designed to move. We have evolved to be active animals, and there are very real mental, emotional, and physical costs which we pay for in our overwhelmingly sedentary lifestyles. We now have an allotment of time which we dole out to do our "exercises." How is this a blessing?
Because we do live modern lives. There is no denying it. And while we can all make small changes to incorporate more movement into these modern lives, that movement will always be adjunct to our otherwise sedentary life. Lives that are hallmarked by outside responsibilities, which many people have little control over their day-to-day. With exercise, we have the opportunity to carve out time of our otherwise hectic lives to dedicate solely to ourselves, and this is really a gift. With this time we are able to find perfection in the moment, expressing tens of thousands of years of human evolution that makes our bodies want to get up and move. Where else to we get to experience perfection on a daily basis? But in exercise you are presented with the opportunity of perfection, because when you're moving, when you're exercising, perfection is giving your 100% in that very moment. It does not matter if you can run a six minute mile or hold that perfect yoga pose, as you try your hardest and give your personal best, you experience perfection.
So get out and move and tell me your thoughts!