In a recent review, researchers discuss how exercise regulates the epigenetics that contribute to the regulation of human disease.
Recent evidence suggests that the benefits of exercise extend further than what is commonly known. Researchers around the world have agreed that regular physical activity has positive effects that originate in the very smallest unit of your body – DNA.
DNA encodes instructions for every biological process occurring in our bodies. Mutations, or changes, to our DNA sequence can result in diseases like Cystic Fibrosis. Within DNA are genes that contain instructions for constructing a specific protein. The specific protein itself has a specific function within our cells. What makes cells in our skin, brain, or blood unique, is the regulation of our genes.
Epigenetics: Chemical Modifications to DNA
Epigenetics is the chemical modifications to our DNA that decide whether genes are expressed at high levels, low levels, or not at all, and these expression levels can differ between cells, tissues, and organs. Epigenetic modifications (literally meaning modifications “on DNA”) are inherited across generations but are also dependent on our environment, including what we eat, where we live, and who we interact with. Further, epigenetic modifications can change throughout our lifetime, affecting levels of gene expression that are critical to all biological processes. Epigenetics play a central role in regulating the mechanisms underlying cancer, metabolic diseases, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disease. Now, it is thought, as published in BMC Genomics, that physical activity causes beneficial effects on a person’s epigenetic profile.
Regular Exercise Helps Maintain a Healthier Epigenetic Profile
Epigenetics is known to play an essential role in cancerous processes, and evidence suggests that physical activity is affecting these processes. Multiple studies have shown that regular exercise helps maintain a healthier epigenetic profile at genes associated with cancer, and avoids aberrant gene expression involved in cancer.
Physical activity improves health and helps prevent many diseases by contributing to the maintenance of a healthy weight, and reducing body fat that is detrimental to internal organs. Epigenetics is known to have an essential role in regulating biological processes by chemically modifying DNA.
Physical Activity Improves Gene Regulation in Metabolic Processes
Metabolic disorders are widespread in modern society. The most common metabolic disorders are type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which is comprised of a cluster of conditions, like increased blood pressure and excess fat around the waist. Together, they increase the chance of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It has been previously shown that physical activity is beneficial for the prevention of many metabolic disorders, but now it is suggested that physical activity influences the epigenetics surrounding metabolic processes. Regular physical activity was demonstrated to improve the regulation of genes involved in metabolic processes. Further, physical activity can go on to benefit a woman’s offspring through the inheritance of epigenetic modifications.
Type of Exercise Influences How DNA is Modified
The type of physical activity performed can influence how our DNA is modified. Sprint interval training and other maximal aerobic exercises produce epigenetic modifications that improve cardiovascular adaptation and therefore contributes to the maintenance of a healthy cardiovascular system. These positive changes influencing the cardiovascular system are not induced by other types of physical activity. There has also been encouraging, yet inconclusive, evidence that epigenetic modifications are responsible for the beneficial effects of physical activity in people who have and are at risk for neurodegenerative disorders.
More Controlled Studies Needed
Recently, convincing evidence has emerged suggesting physical activity could also have a role in maintaining a person’s epigenetic profile and can produce beneficial changes in global gene regulation related to human disease. However, most studies regarding epigenetic changes associated with physical activity had small cohorts, were based on self-reporting, and did not control for other environmental influences. Therefore, results are not conclusive. Still, it does not change the fact that physical activity remains one of the most important factors in maintaining a healthy body and mind. More controlled studies should be pursued to further explore these beneficial effects.
Written by Mallory Wiggans
Reference: Grazioli, E., Dimauro, I., Mercatelli, N., Wang, G., Pitsiladis, Y., Di Luigi, L. and Caporossi, D. (2017). Physical activity in the prevention of human diseases: role of epigenetic modifications. BMC Genomics, 18, 112–123.