Exercise and Epigenetics

December 31, 2014

In my book on epigenetics I discussed how the epigenome responds to internal and external signals. Now evidence is coming together showing that exercise can activate epigenetic signals to turn on beneficial genetic signals.

We all know that when we exercise, profound things happen to our bodies, and they’re all good. Our heart muscle becomes stronger, our cholesterol levels go down, we may lose weight through elimination of fat and by building up muscle mass, our blood pressure drops, and we feel better overall. We’ve always assumed all these processes are brought about by increasing protein synthesis, enlarging muscles and the other structures needed for improved performance. So how does epigenetics fit into this picture?

The first question is, what causes these wonderful changes? It's DNA methylation, histone modification and activation of microRNAs. And of course the first place to look is the human skeletal muscle genes. And what we find is they respond by hypomethylation of their promoters so a whole family of muscle protein genes swing into action.  And you see these changes in humans and mice, in cell cultures. Especially prominent are the genes for myosin, the muscle protein.

We don’t ordinarily associate exercise with protection from cancer, but now there is evidence that it does occur, and through the epigenetic route. We talked about tumor suppressor genes, and how their promoters can become methylated, so the gene is no longer expressed, and without this level of cellular protections, tumors develop.  And when exercise occurs, these tumor suppressor genes become unmethylated and they begin to produce their respective proteins.

The role of exercise in turning on epigenetic responses made the NewYork Times recently. I'm pleased to see their trying to catch up with me.




Lisa said on January 21, 2015 - 10:56am:

Thanks John, that was fascinating.

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