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Even a little exercise can make a genetic difference

Want great-fitting genes? Get them altered. In a new study in Cell Metabolism, healthy but inactive people appeared to have re-fashioned their DNA by exercising for as little as 20 minutes. An article from TIME Healthland describes the effect of these changes, called epigenetic modifications, as "tune-ups" that improve muscle function and efficiency.

As described in the piece, Juleen Zierath, PhD, a professor of clinical integrative physiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and her colleagues examined muscle cells of the quadriceps of 14 relatively sedentary young men and women by taking samples before and after they exercised on a stationary bike. The researchers found:

More genes were turned on in the cells taken after the exercise and the participants’ DNA showed less methylation, a molecular process in which chemicals called methyl groups settle on the DNA and limit the cell’s ability to access, or switch on, certain genes. By controlling how much methylation goes on in certain cells at specific times, the body regulates which genes in the DNA are activated — that’s what differentiates the development of an an eye cell, for example, from that of a liver cell.

Methylation also helps to prime muscle cells for a bout of exercise, getting them to pump out the right enzymes and nutrients the muscle needs to get energy and burn calories while you’re pounding the pavement during that mile-long jog. “We are trying to get at the early messages that the muscle is [receiving in order] to say, ‘Something is happening here, we need to coordinate so we can get more enzymes and more machinery on board so we can cope with the demands of this exercise,’” says Zierath.

Photo by Ed Yourdon

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