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How genes can prevent exercise from making an impact

30 Apr 2016 • By Sara Tiefenbrun

High intensity exercise works, unless genes stand in the way

Physical activity is a powerful lifestyle factor that reduces the risk for developing Type II diabetes. And a lack of fitness has been shown to be a leading predictor of illness and premature death.

In recent years scientific claims have been made for the power of high intensity interval training (HIIT) to benefit staying fit and healthy. Short sharp bursts of exercise can benefit some people while longer stints benefit others. But how much benefit you get from either may well depend on your genes.

Just three minutes of HIIT per day for four weeks can improve insulin sensitivity by an average of 24%. And short sharp bursts can also improve aerobic fitness. If we improve our insulin sensitivity and fitness then we can improve general health, particularly for those at risk of developing Type II diabetes.

Genetic test

The fact is that people respond to exercise in very different ways. In one international study 1000 people were asked to exercise for four hours a week for 20 weeks. Their aerobic fitness was measured before and after starting this regime and the results were striking.

Although 15% of people made substantial improvements, 20% showed no real improvement at all. These so called ‘non-responders’ were exercising properly, but they were not getting any fitter.

Although the majority of those exercising also made a substantial impact on their insulin sensitivity, 30% showed no improvement at all.

Much of the difference in these variations could be traced to a number of genes.

The University of Nottingham is a main UK centre executing HIIT training in overweight, middle-aged people on which genomic based predictors will be developed as part of the EU funded MetaPredict project.

MetaPredict’s collaborators are seeking to “identify molecular biomarkers for response to exercise training, so that individualised lifestyle strategies can be developed to fight or prevent metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease”.

The project combines systems biology, physiology, metabolomics, and DNA and RNA analysis to develop personalised medicine strategies. It will establish diagnostics that can predict the long term consequences of insulin resistance on muscle ageing.

References

  1. The Metapredict Study
  2. The Heritage Family Study
  3. Journal of Applied Physiology: Using molecular classification to predict gains in maximal aerobic capacity following endurance exercise training in humans
  4. BBC: Can three minutes of exercise a week help keep you fit?

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About the Author


Photo of Sara Tiefenbrun

Sara Tiefenbrun

Media Producer

Sara is a journalist with fifteen years' experience in media production. She spent a decade making documentaries at the BBC in London before relocating to Melbourne in 2009. Her research interests include health and education.

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