Thursday, February 4, 2010

The benefits of exercise are limited by your genes.

One of the frustrating things, in some ways at least, about exercise is that no matter how hard you train or how rationally you plan your exercise the benefits that you get will be limited by your genetic profile.

One one level this is pretty obvious. A 5 footer will not be competitive at pro basketball. Woody Allen no matter what training he did or even what drugs he took would never challenge Schwarzenegger. Doug McGuff discusses this frustration in an excellent article here.

But there is more than the frustration of a disillusioned bodybuilder. A new study indicates that some people simply do not benefit from aerobic exercise. For them, its effects are limited.

Using molecular classification to predict gains in maximal aerobic capacity following endurance exercise training in humans

A low maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) is a strong risk factor for premature mortality. Supervised endurance exercise training increases VO2max with a very wide range of effectiveness in humans. Discovering the DNA variants that contribute to this heterogeneity typically requires substantial sample-sizes. In the present study we first use RNA expression profiling to produce a molecular classifier that predicts VO2max training response. We then hypothesised that the classifier genes would harbour DNA variants that contributed to the heterogeneous VO2max response. Two independent pre-intervention RNA expression data sets were generated (n=41 gene-chips) from subjects that underwent supervised endurance training. One identified, the second blindly validated an RNA expression signature that predicted change in VO2max ('predictor genes'). The HERITAGE Family Study (n=473) was used for genotyping. We discovered a 29 RNA signature that predicted VO2max training response on a continuous scale, and these genes contained ~6 new SNPs associated with gains in VO2max in HERITAGE. Three from 4 novel HERITAGE candidate genes were confirmed as RNA predictor genes (i.e. 'reciprocal' RNA validation of a QTL genotype), enhancing the performance of the 29 RNA based predictor. Notably, RNA abundance for the predictor genes was unchanged by exercise training, supporting the idea that expression was pre-set by genetic variation. Regression analysis yielded a model where 11 SNPs explained 23% of the variance in gains in VO2max, corresponding to ~50% of the estimated genetic variance for VO2max. In conclusion, combining RNA profiling with single-gene DNA marker association analysis yields a strongly validated molecular predictor with meaningful explanatory power. VO2max responses to endurance training can be predicted by measuring a ~30 gene RNA expression signature in muscle prior to training. The general approach taken could accelerate the discovery of genetic biomarkers, sufficiently discrete for diagnostic purposes, for a range of physiological and pharmacological phenotypes in humans.

The Press Release explains things well:

  • Findings suggest aerobic exercise does not benefit everyone equally and may not help ward off heart disease and other potential ailments for some people.
  • 20 per cent of normal people do not get any aerobic fitness benefit from following government guidelines.
  • 30 per cent of people do not improve their metabolic fitness from following government guidelines.
  • Genetic testing can tell if a person is likely to benefit from aerobic exercise, meaning healthcare specialists can appropriately personalise treatment plans to reduce or fight cardiovascular diseases.

Aerobic exercise is good for you....but there is a problem:

Bouchard and Timmons noticed a problem, however, and brought together a team to address it: although aerobic exercise can and does increase VO2 max in some people, exercise doesn’t work equally for everyone. Some people who exercise experience little or no increased VO2 max. Aerobic exercise for those people may not help ward off heart disease and other potential ailments.

According to Bouchard, executive director of PBRC, using lifestyle changes to prevent common diseases - such as starting an exercise routine - would be better targeted if healthcare specialists knew ahead of time who would benefit. Bouchard and his colleagues have now moved closer to that goal. They have just published a comprehensive look at a group of genes that modulate the increase in VO2 max due to aerobic exercise.

“We can now take a biological sample from a person and tell if he or she is likely to increase VO2 max through aerobic exercise training,” Timmons said, “This new approach will help physicians personalise exercise programs to reduce or fight cardiovascular diseases. However, if a patient is not likely to benefit much from aerobic exercise, the physician could turn to other type of exercise or alternative therapies. This would be one of the first examples of personalized, genomic-based medicine.”

The Telegraph also reported this and Barry Groves pointed it out


John Sifferman said...

It's easy to get frustrated with the thought of genetic limitations, but in reality, most of us never even come close to our genetic potential.

When talking about hypertrophy, I think a very important point to remember is that not only do we have genetic limitations for actual size potential, we also have a body that doesn't want any more muscle than it needs (Doug pointed this out).

If one wants to come close to their genetic potential for muscle gain, for example, do exactly as bodybuilders do - and you'll get there (and not the "body builders" at your local 24 hour fitness joint, but actual men and women who step out on stage because they know what they're talking about).

Anyone can build muscle, but muscle building for the sake of more muscle is an art form because it's not something one can do easily or naturally. For example, you'll have a VERY hard time building physique show-quality muscle using HIIT, CrossFit, CST, MovNat, Primal fitness, whatever. But you can build huge muscles with bodybuilding style training, specific diet strategies, minimal cardio, and tons of recovery strategies. It is quite formulaic - do this and you'll get that.

The problem is that as general fitness folks are so often guilty of, we want more than one thing. We want the huge muscles - the FALSE APPEARANCE of health and fitness that has been marketed to us for decades - AND we want the healthy body that will live to 100, the functional fitness and condtioning to win a street fight, and the skill to traverse varied obstacles and terrain like a parkour athlete.

Chase two rabbits and you'll catch neither. Chase 4 rabbits and you'll die trying.

What I think would help us in this predicament is a new perspective on what a healthy body looks like. Men and women who have incredibly functionally strong bodies may not even appear that way, and vice versa. People who appear to be strong and healthy may not be able to accomplish very basic tasks that require rudimentary fitness qualities. It's all a matter of perspective, and I think reminding ourselves of that helps us deal with the frustration of struggling to achieve difficult goals.

All that genomic-based medicine is beyond me, but I have a feeling there's not nearly as much truth as the researches claim. Results are results, yes, but there may be more to it than they're admitting or testing.

This "biological sample" they're taking... I do wonder if it's consistent 100% of the time. Not only individually, but across broad populations. Can it change depending on the time of day, food eaten in the past 48 hours, is it sleep dependent, stress dependent, or consistent among people who share common lifestyle traits?

If it's consistent among a specific group of people (traveling businessmen, for instance), then that would lead me to believe the biological sample can be altered through lifestyle factors. If it's completely random for person to person, that still leads me to believe it could be dependent on many different factors, but that would be very difficult and very expensive to track and confirm.

This isn't the first time I've read research that leads people to believe exercise is a waste of time. Bunch of propaganda if you ask me :-)

Doug McGuff said in his closing: "First, stop obsessing about content and happy with the hand that nature has given you and achieve within your capabilities."

That's the best advice I've heard in awhile.

Marc said...

Great comment John!!!

Life doesn't need to be this complicated. Do what makes you feel good; this is why some people live to be 100 eventhough they smoke and drink their whole life. Happy mind = happy body


. said...

Interesting that this should come up just now, as only yesterday I was watching a DVD of a TV series called Ascent of Man, and a decathlon-type athlete was shown sprinting to illustrate the narrator's point (which is too complex to summarise here) and I thought to myself that the athlete's physique was pretty ideal - what I would like for myself though far, far less bulky than I would have idealised in my twenties when I was buying muscle mags.

I found the clip on youtube here. The clip is 10 minutes long, but you can jump ahead to the relevant part at 5:50 if you want the whole context (which I would recommend) or even 7:40 if you're really short of time and just want to see the athlete (and by the way, note that right at the end in the slo-mo of his feet he's clearly running on the balls of his feet in his light sprinting flats).

Then there's one of him polevaulting here (right at the start)

At 43 now, I probably can't reach anything like that level, but that would be the physical ideal I would aspire to (genetics willing!)

Kernyl said...

I'm not sure this study is really telling us anything we don't already know, since I can't access the full report. Yes, we're all different, with different genetic traits. Some people will get results faster and better than others.
Also, if you want results from your training, train hard. 30 minutes of moderate exercise after sitting all day at a desk is really not that much, considering the kind of lifestyles our ancestors lead. A lot of walking from here to there, sprinting from danger and no machines to perform hard physical labor for us.
And lastly, it is not one thing or another that you do that matters, it is the whole package. You can't exercise and then eat like crap, neither can you take a magic pill from the pharmaceutical industry and live forever. It's pretty common sense when you think about it.


Chris said...


of course I don't believe that exercise is a waste of time. I think we are built and designed for movement. I post thins like this to get some discussion and thanks for putting your thoughts here. I think McGuff['s article is fantastic and has some great ideas and thoughts.

With respect to bodybuilders, I am pretty sceptical about your arguments. I am 42 years of age and from the age of 15 until about 32 I trained in pretty hardcore bodybuilding gyms where there were several competitors.

The huge muscles I saw most of the time were due to drugs. I saw people who trained hard for years - doing "exactly like the bodybuilders do" - and they didn't get far. What made the difference was drugs. Steroids work. Steroids get people beyond their genetic potential. I've seen what they do to people. All of a sudden people grew like weeds. One guy I knew just told his mum that he was drinking lots of milk and that had made a difference. He was drinking the milk, but he was also taking Anavar!

I do not think the formula is as straight forward as you suggest. Drugs are a huge dirty little secret in bodybuilding.

Where I am coming to in my own training the more I think about things is some sort of collision between McGuff's HIT approach and MovNat.

I think in terms of building muscle HIT is the way to go. (using DeSimone's Moment Arm approach ) Beyond that however in terms of applying your strength and muscle I think there is so much value in practicing a broad skill set. I like the skill set in MovNat / Methode Naturelle - running, sprints, crawling, climbing, jumps, fighting etc.

So, build the strength with HIT....but for fun and for life, practice some skills. I do Krav Maga, I climb mountains, I run, play sports sometimes. I want the broad skills, the versatiity. But that is practicing skills. Building muscle is different and the way it is done is not the conventional bodybuilding way.

Chris said...

Marc - thanks. Very true.

Chris said...

Chainey - thanks, I'll check it out.

Chris said...

Laura - thanks good thoughts.

The truth of differing genetic potential remains though.

Chris said...

Another thought in this study of course is that they are looking at endurance exercise. If we take the approach of Art DeVany for example - about the evolutionary model being intermittent exercise on a power law model. Lots of easy stuff with relatively small amounts of hard intense exercise. Endurance exercise itself may be the problem in this study. Intermittent intense exercise may be more natural and broadly beneficial perhaps?

John Sifferman said...


I've been reading your blog long enough to know that you prize physical activity, as all of your readers should know. I was just putting that out there as a matter of fact, no disrespect intended at all.

Concerning bodybuilders, I definitely hear where you coming from. Today's professional bodybuilding stages are packed with steroid-junkies, and most don't have a prescription for it ;-)

It's not that I disagree with you, but I would encourage you to look at some of the classical era bodybuilders, Steve Reeves, Frank Zane, and many of today's natural bodybuilders. I have a good friend and colleague, Tom Venuto, who has been a lifetime natural bodybuilder and has built an impressive physique absolutely packed with muscle, and he's done it without drugs his whole life. When I say formulaic, what I mean is that some things must be constant like adequate muscle stimulation, optimal carb:protein ratio in post-workout nutrition, etc. These things must be present for elite level hypertrophy to take place. But also contained in the formula must be an entire system for individualization and specialization for the needs of that athletes lifestyle. So, there must be constants and variables in any endeavor.

Just fyi, I dont' mean to critique you in any way - I'm just sharing my views. You've got a great system that works for you, and that's all that matters. If you're enjoying yourself, then you've found something many people search for and never find.

Keep putting out great information!

Chris said...

Hey john - no worries at all - I really appreciate your comments and am grateful that you take the time to post here.

I think the points you make are valid.

Steve Reeves and Frank Zane were also genetic freaks though. Tom Venuto is a great athlete and there are some amazing naturals out there. But I do think that they have a lot of genetic advantages over the majority.


dancilhoney said...

I really like the way you organize the information. We all know that Exercise has been clearly proven advantageous to both cardiovascular health and maintenance of strength and flexibility in any individual throughout the aging process. Thanks for posting.

Honey from positive effect of