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Can Regular Exercise Affect DNA Methylation?


Experts have repeatedly mentioned that just by putting in a few minutes of physical exertion and exercise every day can have a huge impact on a person’s DNA. This was also quoted in the famous newspaper Daily Mail in which new research was found that suggested 20 minutes of exercise a day is good enough for cranking up the genes required to burn fat and sugar and give the body its optimal shape.

Exercise has been proven and well-known to have a strong impact on the energy-producing machinery in the cells of the human body. This act can greatly alter how the body processes and produces sugar. Several studies have been done on this and they have evaluated if exercise is able to alter the body sugar levels by making a particular type of change in the DNA.

DNA is made up of genes, which are also responsible for the blueprints of creating several proteins. Some of these proteins are also involved in releasing energy.

A vast majority of researchers are of the view that the process of DNA methylation is responsible for this. DNA methylation is said to have a significant influence on how much the body switches and changes the gene in our DNA (Ferrari, et al., 2019). Hypothesis for this study are made and to test them, researchers have mostly used the option of interviews and questionnaires. They asked groups of healthy young adults who were not exercising on a daily basis to complete a very strenuous cycling session. Researchers took samples of these young people and tested the DNA methylation of the samples taken from the thigh muscles before and after the intense cycling session. They found that the DNA methylation decreased vividly after the exercise, which led to the conclusion that this process can be the one through which muscles adapt and adjust to a particular exercise. This could not be regarded as the final word as changes noted appeared to be short term.

The important thing to note over here is that the study did not bring any finding that shows exercise is responsible for altering people’s underlying genetic code. This genetic code is the sequence of letters constituting the DNA.

More About This Research

This study examining the DNA methylation of a group of young adults was carried out by researchers in Sweden, in the famous Karolinska Institute, the University of Copenhagen and Dublin City University. The research was also funded by the European Research Council and other renowned institutes in Europe as well as in Australia.

There have been a lot of media headlines that have claimed that 20 minutes of exercise can conveniently alter the DNA, which goes against the findings of the research. Fact is that exercise itself cannot change a person’s underlying code or genetics. Actually, exercise is known to reverse or completely alter the temporary chemical change happening in the body, also called methylation. This is where a certain chemical compound sticks with the exterior part of the DNA strand. The DNA is made up of the genetic code. This code is used by the body to produce essential proteins, and methylation then changes the whole rate at which these proteins are made by the methylated genes.

The effect made my exercise was checked in the muscle cells and the candidates were not even made to exercise for 20 minutes. Instead, the muscle samples were taken 20 minutes after the participants were through physical activity.

What Kind Of Research Was This?

Any study that involves humans and animals usually has a small number of participants. Although there has been a plethora of research done on this subject previously that demonstrates the fact that exercise does enhance the production of proteins used for energy and other cell functions. However, the mechanism that causes this increase was never elucidated. This was the future direction highlighted in previous research. These previous researches had highlighted that a certain chemical process known as DNA methylation could be responsible for this effect, and therefore, several experiments have been conducted to test this theory.

DNA methylation happens when the methyl group chemical compound strongly attaches to the DNA. The process of Methylation is also used in controlling gene expression. Gene expression is also the process in which the information contained in the DNA is utilised to produce proteins. Methylation of genes is proven to reduce the amount of protein it makes.

The Constitutes Of Research

The researchers took 14 men and women who were around the age of 25 years, and all of these candidates were told to complete a single round of intense exercise on a stationary bike. The participants were also instructed to not eat or drink the night before the session. In this experiment, these young people paddled to the point they were too tired to continue. Researchers took small tissue samples from the thigh muscles of all the candidates before they started the exercises, and then 20 minutes after the exercise.

Within this 14 people group, eight men completed two extra sessions as well, but the intensity levels were reduced. This intensity was brought down to 40% of their full aerobic capacity, whereas the second high-intensity session was kept at 80% of these men’s aerobic capacity. These 8 people were also told to fast the whole night before the sessions. Before they were told to start, a small sample of their thigh muscle was taken and then these men were given a high-carb diet. 4 hours after this high-carb breakfast, these men were told to start the exercise on the stationary bike. They were instructed to continue paddling until almost 400 calories were burnt. Muscle sample was taken right after the session and then another sample was taken after three hours.

The researchers studied these muscle samples and after they had compared it with the DNA methylation before and after the exercise sessions along with the different intensity levels.

Researchers found that DNA methylation decreased after the single intense session of exercise. This decrease led to the enhancement of a few genes that are responsible for a lot of processes in the cell, including energy generation.

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Researchers also analysed the sub-group of 8 men and they concluded that the high-intensity exercise resulted in a greater decrease in the methylation as compared to low-intensity exercise. (Barres, Yan, & al, 2012)



Barres, Yan, & al. (2012). Acute exercise remodels promoter methylation in human skeletal muscle. Cell Metabolism, 15(3), 405-411.

Ferrari, L., Vicenzi, M., Tarantini, L., Baretta, F., Sironi, S., Baccarelli, A., . . .Bollati, V. (2019). Effects of Physical Exercise on Endothelial Function and DNA methylation. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(14).

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