Exercise not only changes your look, it changes your physiology

We all know that exercise improves our health by reducing our chance of developing diabetes and becoming fat.

We also know that exercise improves fitness-related factors, such as increasing our strength, aerobic fitness, balance, flexibility, power and endurance.

However, there are some fascinating new studies that seem to demonstrate that exercise can actually change how our genes are expressed.

You may know that aerobic exercise increases the number of mitochondria in muscle cells, and the increase in the number of mitochondria helps you burn more fat at the cellular level and generate more energy in the presence of oxygen.

This is the whole theory behind aerobic exercise — exercise at a level that you can breathe deeply and burn fat preferentially.

New research completed in Sweden has found that even deeper within the cell, way down at the gene level, is also impacted by aerobic exercise and diet.

Genes are those part of your genetic make-up that express various proteins that fire a range of physiological actions.

Many people are aware that genes are made up of DNA and are the working subunits of DNA that code proteins.

One of the most powerful methods of affecting gene activity is a process called methylation.

Methylation can either make genes more or less responsive to bodily reactions, and therefore can change the way the gene acts or expresses proteins.

Different genetic methylation patterns resulting from varying dietary habits may in part determine who gets diabetes and other such metabolic diseases and who does not.

The new study in Sweden at the Lund University Diabetes Center had a group of men work out under the guidance of a trainer for six months.

At the end of that time period, the men understandably had lost inches off their waists, lost fat, increased their endurance and improved their blood pressure and cholesterol readings.

They also had altered the methylation pattern of many of the genes in their fat cells.

The study reported that more than 17,900 sites on 7,663 separate genes had changed methylation patterns.

The genes that showed the greatest change are those that previously had been shown to play a role in fat storage and also in developing the risk for diabetes or obesity.

Interestingly, other studies have indicated that aerobic exercise has a correspondingly intense effect on DNA methylation in muscle cells. In fact, after just one workout, muscle DNA methylation patterns were altered.

Even more interesting was that the people who had worked out more vigorously on exercise bicycles had far more pronounced muscle cell methylation changes than those who had worked out at a more gentle pace, although the total number of calories burned were the same.

A professor of integrative physiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, where this research is taking place, stated that DNA methylation changes are one of the earliest noticeable adaptations to exercise, and that those changes drive other bodily adaptations forward.  

Much more needs to be discovered about the body’s adaptation to exercise and diet, and if resistance training has the same effect on gene behavior as the aerobic exercise did in these studies.

However, one thing is clear and that is that the effects of diet and exercise go far deeper than just looking good on the outside and feeling good on the inside.

It goes right down to the very essence of who we are — way deeper than our cells.

•  Jane Riley, M.S., B.A., C.P.T., Certified Nutritional Adviser, can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com, 212-1451 or www.janerileyfitness.com.

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