Girl, look at that genome! Working out reprograms your DNA, science discovers

We’ve always known that working out keeps you healthy. But science has now discovered evidence to suggest that a good work out will actually change the way your DNA is expressed: getting your jog on will actually make your body function differently.

Just over 2 months ago, we rang in 2012. For many of us, that meant resolutions and goal setting. The most common nationwide new year’s resolution is hands down becoming physically fit. Gyms recognize this trend and often offer new member new year specials or trial periods or various other marketing tactics to drive home the point of attaining a new you for the new year.

Working out changes your body. Endurance builds, muscles strengthen, metabolism grows – and your DNA loses chemical modifications. Wait, what?

A paper published in Sweden just this week studied the methylation status of genes in small biopsies taken from the thigh muscles of healthy young adults before and after working out on an exercise bike. The biopsies showed that some genes involved in energy metabolism were demethylated in the promoter regions by the workout – the parts of DNA that facilitate the transcription of particular genes.

The amount of demethylation in the genes varied on a person by person basis depending on the intensity of the workout. In other words, individuals who had cycled the hardest showed the greatest amount of gene demethylation in their biopsies.

Interestingly enough, similar demethylation processes have been observed in cultured muscle cells upon receiving large doses of caffeine.  According to Juleen Zierath, a member of the team providing research for the paper,

“Caffeine releases calcium from the sarcoplasmic reticulum, an organelle found in muscles. It sort of mimics a contracting muscle. Calcium might, therefore, be the cellular trigger that activates the demethylation pathway.”

So what does this all mean? Well, your body works differently after demethylation, as different genes begin to get expressed. Its like changing the settings on your phone: it’s the same phone, but now it operates differently. In this case, the change happens in the muscles.  Just like caffeine makes you physically feel more awake, demethylation sort of “wakes up” your muscles, making them respond more quickly than they would have before exercise.

Despite the fact that demethylation happens in response to caffeine, this doesn’t necessarily mean we should change our resolutions from working out more to drinking more coffee.  To achieve the same effect on muscles that exercise does, one would need to consume approximately 50 cups of coffee per day, a near lethal amount!

Although it is unclear exactly how these methyl groups were removed from the DNA tested, demethylation is quickly becoming a topic of scientific popularity. It is expected to undergo many tests and experiments so we can have a full understanding in the next 3-6 months of why the process happens and what exactly it does.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy both my morning caffeine fix and evening gym workout.

By Jillian Seaton

Jillian is a recovering sorority girl/cheerleader and an aspiring trophy wife/crazy cat lady who somehow found herself in the magical land of auto dealership marketing and family portraits. Her true passions in life are writing, whiskey, music (especially good ol' rock 'n roll), and cheese. Jillian's life goals include saving the world from cancer and becoming the best astronaut ever.