Methylation and Exercise

October 14, 2013

Methylation – The Name of the Game for your Genes When you Exercise 

 Reference:  Ronin and Volkov in PloS GeneticsZierath Cell Metabolism March 2012 

 What on earth is methylation?  It is the chemical addition of one carbon atom to a molecule.  Your genes are made up of thousands of complex molecules that give a genetic alphabet for your cells to copy.  That’s called your genetic code. Your genetic code changes very, very slowly – on the order of 0.01% every 10,000 years.  But that isn’t how your body reads your genetic code.  You read and duplicate your code when cells divide. 

 But on a daily basis your cells have a different problem. They have to take your genetic code and turn it into action, depending on the environment you are in.  That’s what methylation does.  Your cells have the ability to methylate the outside of genes, the histone proteins that wrap around and protect your DNA, not the code itself.  It’s that methylation that determines how often a gene is turned on and off.  

In fact, we are beginning to learn that methylation can even be passed on from mother to offspring.  You add a methyl group from B12 or folate (that’s why these are such critical vitamins) to the outside of your DNA, and that instructs your DNA reading machinery whether to turn on or turn off that gene.  Usually methylating turns off the gene, and removing the methyl group allows it to be expressed.  You can then measure messenger RNA for a specific gene and see if it has gone up or down.  Methylation decreases usually have increased mRNA levels. 

 All right, so what’s the deal with exercise?  Ronin and Volkov took 23 of out-of-shape couch potato men (not Packer fans, this was in Sweden) and got them a trainer and a gym with either spin classes or aerobics for 6 months.  They got before and after fat biopies and ran then DNA in their fat cells for methylation.  They found 7,663 genes with different methylation ratios.   18 of 22 Type 2 diabetes-associated genes had higher methylation rates.  When examined to see what that methylation did on the action of the diabetes-associated genes, they found it led to more fat break down. 

 Wow!  In 6 months you can change your genetic expression!   No, not six months.  One session will do.  That’s what Zierath in Cell Metabolism reports.  Take some sedentary folks, biopsy their muscle, then give them one heavy-duty workout, then rebiopsy.  What happens?  One workout and you can measure methylation changes in muscle genes (mostly decreases so that the gene is expressed more).   The more intense the workout, the greater the measurable changes, even when the same amount of calories were expended.  

This gives credence to the findings of those who advocate for intense, short bursts of exercise as opposed to long, leisurely walks. 

 WWW.  What will work for me?  Intense exercise changes my genes with just one session.  No exercise probably does just the opposite, maybe not as quickly.  The magic of exercise is beginning to be understood. It might not need to be every day.  I imagine my hunter-gatherer great-great-g-g-g-g-….grandfather had to run like crazy at least once a week to catch a deer, get away from a lion…fight an enemy.  We got designed for that to work well for us. If I’m going to watch football all day Sunday, I better work out sometime Monday.

Column written by John E Whitcomb, MD at Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI