In April, 2003, the human genome project was complete. After years of collaboration, the scientific community had mapped all 20,500 genes of the human DNA. No more mysteries, right?
In fact, we are now realizing that genes are only a part of the system. The other part is mainly a bunch a switches that can turn genes on and off. Introducing epigenetics: a newer field of research that looks above and beyond genes by studying the effects of lifestyle on genetic makeup.
The way you live influences the expression of a gene – there is no change to the DNA sequence. But what is interesting is that this newly acquired expression can be passed down to your kids.
In other words, the effects of your healthy and unhealthy behaviours will affect your children.
Basically, if two couch potatoes have a kid, they pass on those couch-potato genes to that child. This may explain why some children today are so unhealthy at such a young age.
It’s like playing poker: You get a certain hand and how you play the game will determine your success. It’s the same thing here. You can’t change your genes. But your lifestyle will determine which genes are turned on or off.
So how can you influence this? One way is to simply get moving.
We all know that regular physical activity is good for us. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said walking was man’s best medicine. During muscle contraction, certain compounds are secreted. This is how your muscles communicate to other parts of your body.
For example, repeated communication can modify how a gene expresses itself in the fat cells. Or it can reduce inflammation in a certain part of your body. And the wheels of change are in motion from the first workout. You may not see a difference, but that initial exercise session is moving you in the right direction.
The pharmaceutical industry is probably looking at this and hoping for exercise in a bottle
(I can’t imagine what the side effects would be). There are so many variables at play here that one pill won’t be able to do it – but it may help those exercise geeks with exercise prescription. We may eventually be able to tell a 55-year-old man with Type-2 diabetes exactly what to do to manage his condition.
The message here is that you’re in control. There is scientific evidence to support it. So you can’t blame your genes any more. Get in the game, be active and be a positive gene influencer.
Gilles Beaudin is a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Canada.