By Abby Larson
Can someone really be born to be an athlete? Science says so. The idea of a genetic basis to exercise is a fairly new area of science, but it makes sense based on how the human body works. The expression of genes controls the function of human physiology: muscle development, capillary growth, hemoglobin concentration in red blood cells, etc. After strenuous exercise, gene expression fires up to control muscle tissue repair due to increased forces on the body and tissue metabolic demand. Capillaries feeding the muscles grow and become more efficient at delivering oxygen to tissues. All of this is controlled by gene expression, the cellular switchboard of the human body.
Recent studies have identified over 200 genes that can determine the body’s ability to adapt quickly to exercise. Based on this, training and conditioning could only take an athlete up to his or her genetically predetermined potential. Does this mean that children can be genetically tested to see if they will be good at sports? Is there a gene that makes a good football player versus a good runner? It’s more complicated than saying if a person has a specific gene, he or she can be a top athlete. Like all processes in the human body, multiple genes are involved in adaptation to exercise and gene interactions play a large role. Gene products don’t interact in a linear fashion, but in pathways and networks. This makes genes harder to understand, and our knowledge of the interactions is in its infancy. Once these pathways are discovered, scientists can begin to understand the extent to genetic determination of athletic ability.
These studies on the genetic basis of exercise are not going to benefit just athletes—physical activity is one of the greatest preventative medicines for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It is likely that genes correlated with exercise response could be mutated in people that have obesity or heart disease, which proposes new options of drug and gene therapy as preventative medicine. The more we understand the benefits and mechanisms of exercise, the better we can understand how exercise can be used to improve public health. So next time you go to the gym or run outside, think to yourself, “this is science.”