Genetics and Our Health How much can we control

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This article was edited and updated on December 23, 2021.

Reality Check: Aging Brings Changes

There’s a reality check that occurs as we age — it usually hits us in our 60‘s. We learn that no matter how hard we have tried to stay healthy — no smoking, lots of exercise, a healthy diet — we may have genetic programming which will hand us health issues on a silver platter, even though we may feel we have done the right thing, if not throughout our life, than for the greater part of it.

Genetics and aging play significant roles in our health; sometimes, it has little to do with diet, lifestyle, or frequency or amount of exercise. Three health issues many face as a result of DNA and genetics are:

(1) Heart Disease: High cholesterol levels are most often caused by poor diet and lifestyle as well as the way cholesterol is produced in the liver. But one out of every five hundred people has a genetic defect called familial hypercholesterolaemia. People with this condition usually produce higher cholesterol levels throughout their lives; as well, their bodies do not effectively remove cholesterol from their blood. For more details, see Exercise and Heart Disease.

(2) Diabetes: Statistics for diabetes show that the disease is on the increase — both Type 1 and Type 2. Much of this can be controlled by diet, but it tends to be inherited. For more information, see Exercise and Diabetes.

(3) Osteoporosis: Men and women in their 50's should have their calcium and Vitamin D levels checked, or ask for a bone density test at least every five years. Again, this condition tends to be genetic; however, diet and exercise can help. For further discussion, see Exercise and Osteoporosis


Genetics. DNA. What we inherit. We can eat the right foods and we can exercise frequently. We can avoid smoking and drinking. And still our own bodies will seemingly betray us. But even my doctor says, “Thank heavens you were exercising! Things might have been so much worse.”

My son jokingly says, “Mom, nobody gets out of this alive.” He is right. Our goal has to be — must always be — quality of life. We must strive to be as healthy as we can possibly be. We know what things we should do: the right food, the right exercise, the right attitude. The rest will take care of itself.

Can exercise change your DNA?

In March of 2012, Medical News Today published an article about the link between DNA and exercise.2

The article, written by Christine Kearney, discusses a recent study which had been published in Cell Metabolism. It was done at the Karolinksa Institute, a medical university which was founded in 1810 in Stockholm, Sweden, and is considered one of Europe’s finest.

Does your genetic makeup actually change because of exercise? No. But it can change DNA molecules structurally and chemically. This study concluded that “exercise almost immediately alters DNA ....”

Even if you do not understand the science of this (and it is very complex), this is not surprising news. Everyone already understands that exercise changes muscle. It also increases metabolism of sugar and fat. What this study discovered, according to Juleen Zieratha, Professor of Clinical Integrative Physiology at the Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery, is that “methylation changes come first” — before muscle and sugar and fat.

Christine Kearney writes about the study:

“During the study, DNA within skeletal muscle was taken from people who had just experienced a round of exercise. The DNA showed less methyl groups than it had before the person's workout. The changes were found in the areas of DNA which work as stopping places for a certain kind of enzyme called transcription factors. These enzymes are very important in terms of muscles and exercise.”

The final conclusion of the study is: “...transcription factors basically open our genes. When methyl groups are secure, the transcription factors are not able to enter through DNA. However, when the methyl groups are not in place, the transcription factors can move about freely and therefore the muscle is able to work harder.”

Zierath concludes: "Exercise is medicine, and it seems the means to alter our epigenomes for better health may be only a jog away." 3

Yet more Research to Suggest that Exercise is Medicine

The U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reveals that exercise may reduce chances of metabolic syndrome and depression in individuals.

In this survey, 1,146 participants reported their exercising routines in 2005 and 2006.

Women averaged about 18 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise daily, while men averaged 30 minutes.

The survey determined that people who got at least 30 minutes of exercise a day were less likely to be depressed, less likely to have high cholesterol and less likely to have metabolic syndrome.4

Final Analysis

When we learn that we have high cholesterol, or weak bones, or high blood sugar, it may be that some of it is not our "fault." But if exercise can help us to either keep the disease under control, or make us even better, it is most likely better than taking a pill.

See also:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. ↩︎

  2. Thanks to a fitness participant for steering me towards this particular study. ↩︎

  3. Check out the full article↩︎

  4. SOURCE: International Council on Active Aging who got the research from Preventive Medicine, online (March 31, 2012). See the abstract↩︎