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Research Points to the Power of Exercise for Remodeling Your DNA

A study looking at how endurance exercise affects skeletal muscle finds that changes go down to the genome level.

Image showing graphic of DNA chain
  • Researchers suggested that changes produced by exercise are in the part of the genome associated with disease development.
  • Although the study size was modest, it’s not the first study to suggest exercise can go down to the molecular level.
  • These changes are dose dependent, researchers suggest, which means the more exercise you do, the more benefits you can reap.

A wealth of research has shown associations between regular exercise and a reduced risk of chronic diseases—such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and others—and experts often point to mechanisms like lower inflammation, better circulation, and improved oxygen levels throughout the body. While all of that is true, a recent study in Molecular Metabolism suggests one more possible reason: Exercise might change some processes in your DNA.

Researchers recruited eight young, healthy men and had them undertake an endurance exercise program that included 60 minutes of indoor cycling classes five days a week for six weeks. Using biopsies of skeletal muscle tissue taken before and after the study period, they found that the training created changes in the muscles’ gene expression, particularly those related to disease development.

Gene expression is the process used by DNA to carry out functions, like a series of on/off switches that are constantly being flipped. This research suggests exercise can’t change the switch itself—it doesn’t transform your DNA—but it may affect the flipping. And that toggle could reduce disease and boost function overall, according to senior author Romain Barrès, Ph.D., from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research. 

“The way exercise remodels the activity in skeletal muscle isn’t associated just with muscles, it affects organs as well, including the brain,” he said. “Essentially, through endurance activity, you’re rewiring these gene enhancers to be more effective at reducing disease risk.”

The study does have limitations, mainly in its small sample size, but Barrès said it was a positive step forward in preliminary research looking at the mechanisms behind why exercise—both endurance exercise and resistance training—is so beneficial. Also, this isn’t the first study to suggest activity can be seen at the molecular level. 

Research done in 2020 at Stanford University School of Medicine noted that exercise produces distinctive markers for a wide array of biological processes, including metabolism and immunity. In that study, post-exercise molecular fluctuations were so distinct that researchers suggest there may come a time when you can determine someone’s level of fitness through a simple blood test.

Of course, the ability to check on your DNA and molecular changes may be well beyond your fitness tracker’s function (for now, anyway), but this is a good reminder that as you get stronger, your immune system does, too.