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Epigenetics and Exercise: The Biological Wonders of Exercising

The benefits of practising an active lifestyle and regular physical activity go beyond improving our figure, wellbeing, and headspace. Exercise optimises our cell function at the level of our DNA by altering our epigenetic tags. Exercising and epigenetics are closely linked, and physical activity alters our epigenome in ways that are favourable to our wellbeing and longevity. Changes may even reflect the type of exercise routines, length, and intervals of practice.

But do not get discouraged thinking that only high intensity activities have an impact. Taking a stroll around your neighbourhood or having a jog in the park, even a boogie to your favourite songs can be enough to begin improving your health, starting from your epigenome. Here we will explore further some of the known epigenetic changes and how our body benefits from them.

Exercise can reduce the risk of developing diseases, improve our mood and mental states, as well as improved sleep and stamina, to mention a few. Additionally, exercising induces changes in our brain that improve our cognition and that may prove neuroprotective. Exercising also helps our cells maintain a health biological age. The ‘younger’ our cells, the reduced risk of developing a number of diseases.

Interesting studies have shown that exercising induces particular epigenetic changes in muscular cells, in which methyl tags are added and removed across the cells DNA, particularly in genes involved in energy maintenance and metabolism, inflammation, and insulin responses. These changes were found in volunteers who exercised on only one leg for 3 months and then by comparing both the epigenetic samples between the exercised and unexercised leg. The differences were significant and changes were only observed in the cells from the leg that endured the exercise and training.

These endurance activities induce changes in our cells epigenome that lead to more efficient and healthy muscles. What was not elucidated from this research is whether the epigenetic changes were maintained once exercise was stopped.

In a recent study published in Nature, researchers from Stanford University and the University of Copenhagen explored the effect of lifelong exercise on our epigenome. They recruited two groups of elderly individuals, being on average 62 years of age. The groups were divided based on their exercise habits throughout life; 8 people formed the sedentary group and another 8 in the physically active group.

They observed that active lifestyles led to observable epigenetic changes in areas associated with genes involved in varied homeostatic and regulatory processes within our bodies. The skeletal muscle cells’ epigenome from lifelong active participants showed differential methylation tags compared to the sedentary groups. The variation in methylation patterns ocurred in genes involved in insulin regulation, muscle regeneration, oxidative and glucose metabolism. The findings shine light in the modulatory effect that exercise has on our health by means of epigenetic alterations. It remains unclear whether these changes are stored as our epigenome default memory, and if so whether they maintain muscle function and conditions after prolonged intervals without exercise. Instead they seem to ensure that our body is adapted to our energetic demands and well adjusted to optimise our performance when enduring exercise. This in turn allows us to optimise our responses to activity by having the most tailored and beneficial bodily conditions.

But exercise has proven beneficial not only in our skeletal muscle cells but across many of our body systems, even proving protective against many diseases. Aerobic exercise has been associated with beneficial epigenetic changes in the cardiovascular system, like changes in the production levels of microRNAs. These microRNAs changes showed to prevent hypertension and even reverse it in a study that examined epigenetic changes before and after a six months exercise intervention in 23 healthy males. Other studies have shown that aerobic exercise presents protective properties against metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes.

Sporadic exercise sessions have shown to increase mitochondrial functioning, leading to improved oxygen utilisation and in turn increasing energy production. Aerobic exercise has shown to improve cognition. Prolonged aerobic exercise has shown to promote neuroplasticity, by epigenetically enhancing genes associated with memory capacity. Aerobic exercise also aids reducing anxiety and stress responses, notably if practised consistently for several months. Similarly, anaerobic practices such as yoga prove helpful in boosting our mood.

Not having an active lifestyle and not exercising negatively affects our health. Our metabolism gets disrupted, leading to an altered epigenetic landscape. This means that our internal processes are not as capable of working efficiently when we are continuously inactive, increasing the risk of developing diseases such as cancer, diabetes, or stroke, amongst others. Sedentary lifestyles have been proven harmful to our bodies; prompting mitochondrial dysfunction, alteration of our DNA, and cellular inefficiency. It has been demonstrated that inactivity and unhealthy diets are strong predictors of morbidity and mortality.

Certainly, the effects that exercise has on our general wellbeing are invaluable. The extent and duration to which the epigenetic alterations are manifested remains unsolved, hence the more reasons to become active and take up an active life and sports. Ultimately, exercise leads to important biological adaptations and physiological manifestations partly mediated by epigenetic processes that ensure our wellbeing maintenance.

It is irrefutable that our mental state, physique, and internal processes benefit from exercising and that our epigenome has a central role in bringing about those changes. Exploring our individual responses to exercise is recommended, testing which activities we benefit from the most, which exercise styles make us feel our best. What not better time than Spring to boost our welfare from within our epigenome.

- Claudia Ghezzhou

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