Exercise changes your DNA

March 6, 2012

You might think that the DNA you inherited is one thing that you absolutely can't do anything about, but in one sense you'd be wrong. Researchers reporting in the March issue of Cell Metabolism, a Cell Press publication, have found that when healthy but inactive men and women exercise for a matter of minutes, it produces a rather immediate change to their DNA. Perhaps even more tantalizing, the study suggests that the caffeine in your morning coffee might also influence muscle in essentially the same way.

The underlying genetic code in isn't changed with exercise, but the within those muscles are chemically and structurally altered in very important ways. Those modifications to the DNA at precise locations appear to be early events in the genetic reprogramming of muscle for strength and, ultimately, in the structural and metabolic benefits of exercise.

"Our muscles are really plastic," says Juleen Zierath of Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. "We often say "You are what you eat." Well, muscle adapts to what you do. If you don't use it, you lose it, and this is one of the mechanisms that allows that to happen."

The in question are known as and involve the gain or loss of chemical marks on DNA over and above the familiar sequence of As, Gs, Ts, and Cs. The new study shows that the DNA within skeletal muscle taken from people after a burst of exercise bears fewer chemical marks (specifically ) than it did before exercise. Those changes take place in stretches of DNA that are involved in turning "on" genes important for muscles' adaptation to exercise.

When the researchers made muscles contract in lab dishes, they saw a similar loss of DNA methyl groups. Exposure of isolated muscle to caffeine had the same effect.

Zierath explained that caffeine does mimic the that comes with exercise in other ways, too. She doesn't necessarily recommend anyone drink a cup of joe in place of exercise. It's nevertheless tempting to think that athletes who enjoy a coffee with their workout might just be on to something.

Broadly speaking, the findings offer more evidence that our genomes are much more dynamic than they are often given credit for. Epigenetic modifications that turn genes on and back off again can be incredibly flexible events. They allow the DNA in our cells to adjust as the environment shifts.

"Exercise is medicine," Zierath says, and it seems the means to alter our genomes for better health may be only a jog away. And for those who can't exercise, the new findings might point the way to medicines (caffeinated ones, perhaps?) with similar benefits.

Explore further: Protein drinks after exercise help maintain aging muscles

More information: Barres et al.: “Acute Exercise Remodels Promoter Methylation in Human Skeletal Muscle.” Cell Metabolism, March 7, 2012 print issue

Related Stories

Protein drinks after exercise help maintain aging muscles

May 25, 2011

A new research report appearing online in the FASEB Journal shows that what someone drinks after exercise plays a critical role in maximizing the effects of exercise. Specifically, the report shows that protein drinks after ...

Targeting leg fatigue in heart failure

October 31, 2011

Doctors should not only treat the heart muscle in chronic heart failure patients, but also their leg muscles through exercise, say researchers in a study published today in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

How exercise helps you avoid a broken heart

January 16, 2012

Joseph Libonati, PhD, associate professor of nursing at Penn Nursing answer’s questions about how exercise betters your heart health. Dr. Libonati is a cardiac physiology expert who focuses on heart health and hypertension.

Recommended for you

New class of RNA tumor suppressors identified

November 23, 2015

A pair of RNA molecules originally thought to be no more than cellular housekeepers are deleted in over a quarter of common human cancers, according to researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Breast cancer ...

Batten disease may benefit from gene therapy

November 11, 2015

In a study of dogs, scientists showed that a new way to deliver replacement genes may be effective at slowing the development of childhood Batten disease, a rare and fatal neurological disorder. The key may be to inject viruses ...

Molecular clocks control mutation rate in human cells

November 9, 2015

Every cell in the human body contains a copy of the human genome. Through the course of a lifetime all cells are thought to acquire mutations in their genomes. Some of the mutational processes generating these mutations do ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 07, 2012
I think the availability of desktop DNA sequencers will change the way science thinks about human biology.This paper suggests only a tip of what might be found... DNA changing in the gut as a response to new foods? DNA changing on the skin after exposure to new environments?
not rated yet Mar 08, 2012
Re: Exercise as medicine
The common molecular biology across vertebrate species suggests that the epigenetic effects either of movement, or of exercise, on gene expression is due to the same mechanisms I have detailed in the context of the gene, cell, tissue, organ, organ system pathway (in accord with the FDA Critical Path Initiative and ASAM policy statement on addiction). This pathway links sensory input from the environment directly to gene activation and behavior. In mammals, for example, it is the gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) neuronal system that is primarily responsible for the epigenetic effects of nutrient chemicals and species-specific pheromones on intracellular signaling and stochastic gene expression in brain tissue responsible for movement. See for example: Feedback loops link odor and pheromone signaling with reproduction. Boehm U, Zou Z, Buck LB. Cell. 2005 Nov 18;123(4):683-95

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.