Words: Kate Scott
We all know about the many benefits of exercise on our overall health and well-being. However, did you know that our unique set of genes play a role in determining which type of exercise is best suited for us as individuals? If you struggle with your weight or find that you are constantly injuring yourself, your genes might be to blame!
Some people are more genetically suited to endurance activities such as long-distance running or cycling, while others are better suited for high-intensity, short-duration exercises like weightlifting or sprinting. Some people are also more prone to certain types of injury. Additionally, your genes can impact your body’s ability to process certain nutrients, which can affect an individual’s response to different diets. Even our motivation to exercise can come down to our genes.
The health and nutrition world has already moved towards adopting genetic-based diet and supplement plans, known as Personalised Nutrition. So, should we be considering tailoring our fitness to be in line with our individual genetic blueprint too? While this is still an emerging field of science, the idea is that by understanding how different genetic variations (we all have some combination of these) influence our individual response to food, nutrients, and exercise, we can create more effective and efficient programmes tailored to each of our specific needs, which is more likely to lead to long-term success. Goodbye generic diet, supplement, and fitness plans. Hello era of increased personalisation.
One of the key areas where genes play a role in fitness is in muscle fibre type. Our muscles are made up of two types of fibres: slow-twitch (Type I) and fast-twitch (Type II). Slowtwitch fibres are more efficient at using oxygen to generate energy and are designed for endurance activities, such as long-distance running or cycling, while fast twitch fibres are better able to generate short bursts of power and are better suited for highintensity, short-duration exercises like weightlifting or sprinting.
Recent research has shown that people with a variant on the ACTN3 gene, known as the “speed gene,” have been found to have a greater amount of fast-twitch muscle fibres and are more likely to excel in activities such as weightlifting and sprinting. On the other hand, individuals with a different variant of the ACTN3 gene may have a greater amount of slowtwitch muscle fibres making them better suited for endurance activities such as running, rowing, or cycling. Depending on which version of this gene you have, you may achieve better results and long-term fitness by creating a routine that incorporates the type of exercise your body is better suited to . Have you found that running isn’t really working for you? Perhaps it’s time to try lifting weights, or visa-versa.
The ACE gene has also been found to play a role. This gene has been linked to differences in cardiovascular fitness and muscle performance. Specifically, the “I” variant of the ACE gene has been found to be associated with increased cardiovascular fitness, VO2max and endurance performance, while the “D” variant of the ACE gene has been associated with better muscle power and sprint performance . Again, understanding which form of this gene you have inherited can help to inform the type of training you are naturally suited to but also where you may need to work harder to see improvement.
Another area of research where genetics has been found to play a role is in influencing an individual’s risk of exercise injury. One example is the COL1A1 gene which is involved in the production of type 1 collagen found mainly in connective tissue, bone, and skin. People with a variant on this gene have increased risk of tendon and ligament injuries such as ACL rupture, Achilles tendon injury, rotator cuff (shoulder) injury, and tennis elbow . People with this variant should focus on pre-habilitative measures such as stretching and strengthening, training on softer surfaces and targeted nutrition support for connective tissue health, such as vitamin C, zinc and bone broth .
Our genes also play a role in how our bodies process different nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and fats. Variations in certain genes like ADRB2, PPARG, FTO and TCF7L2, which play a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism, may affect an individual’s ability to lose weight or gain muscle in response to exercise. For example, the FTO gene which has been linked to obesity, has been shown to be highly responsive to increased physical exercise in terms of weight loss . The ADRB2 gene has also been linked to obesity, with carriers of a variant on this gene being more likely to gain and regain weight due to a reduced ability to mobilise their fat stores in response to exercise. Although that may sound like bad news, having this kind of knowledge about yourself can be incredibly empowering. Instead of feeling doomed, you have the opportunity to work with your body’s natural pre-dispositions and focus on the specific habits, foods and fitness that will actually work for you rather than blindly trying loads of diets and crazy workouts. In our practice we’ve seen people who have struggled trying to lose weight for years only to find it falls off much more easily when they are finally doing the right exercise and following the right diet for their own unique needs.
We know that caffeine can enhance performance, but did you know that the way caffeine affects us is highly dependent how how quickly we metabolise it? This is largely down to the CYP1A2 gene. People with the CC genotype of CYP1A2 are slow caffeine metabolisers, while those with the AA genotype are fast metabolisers. Research has shown that fast metabolisers seem to experience the greatest benefit from caffeine on their performance. Slow metabolisers experience a benefit on a little caffeine but this benefit declines as the amount of caffeine increases .
Even our motivation to exercise can be down to our genes. People with a certain variation of the BDNF gene experience a greater increase in positive mood and lower perceived exertion during exercise and are therefore more likely to feel motivated to exercise consistently than those who haven’t inherited this variant . Wouldn’t it be liberating to know that you are not just lazy because having to go to the gym doesn’t make you want to spring out of bed? Armed with this knowledge you could seek out the types of exercise that do make you feel more enthused, like hiking or swimming or joining a dance class.
As you can see, there are many insights to be gained from understanding your unique genetic makeup and tailoring your fitness, diet and lifestyle habits accordingly.
Of course, there are quite a few aspects of health and fitness that still apply to everyone, regardless of their genetics. These include the following:
- Daily movement. Regardless of which type of exercise you are more suited to, the most important thing for your health is to include some type of movement into your daily routine. Even just a 30 minute walk daily has been shown to have enormous health benefits 
- Building muscle and maintaining a healthy body weight. Whichever form of exercise you choose, building muscle and keeping your body weight at a healthy level is shown to limit chronic illness and boost overall health and longevity 
- Stretching and toning. Exercises like yoga and pilates that tone, strengthen and stretch the muscles and fascia can benefit people of all ages, body types, and fitness levels. A mind-body practice can help improve flexibility, balance, strength, and overall well-being. Low-impact exercise is an excellent option for people recovering from injuries or with chronic illness.
- Hydration. Water is essential for every system and function of the body. Under typical circumstances the body loses and needs to replace approximately 2 -3 litres of water per day. Aim for 8 glasses of water or around 2 litres of natural spring or filtered water daily. If you are training heavily or regularly using a sauna, then aim for closer to 2.5 – 3 litres daily.
- Diet. You can’t out exercise a bad diet. While you may be able to keep the weight off, the damage that eating a diet full of processed foods does is mostly internal and not visible until it’s too late. Eat as many natural, unprocessed, whole foods as possible. Try to cook from scratch as often as you can. Include a variety of organic fruit and vegetables. Aim for free range, grass fed, organic produce where possible.
- Sleep. Sleep is one of the majorly underrated pillars of health. Adequate sleep allows the body and mind to recharge and repair and is important for your mood, performance and the overall regulation of your health. Not getting enough quality sleep has been linked to a range of diseases and disorders. Aim for 7 – 9h of sleep every night when possible, trying to maintain the same sleep and wake times every day.
Kate Scott is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and Nutrigenomics Specialist and the co-founder of DNApal