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Your Genes May Determine Your Fitness Level

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I've always been amazed at the runners who can complete a marathon with minimal training, or get significantly faster just by doing a little bit of speed work. I've never been one of those people. I believe that I'm genetically destined to run about the same pace I always have, and I know that I can't skimp on training runs if I'm going to successfully complete a marathon. I've come to accept that no matter how fit I am or how much I train, I'll never comfortably run at the front of the pack. When I've discussed my theory with others, some tell me it's not true and I'm just giving up. But new research shows there might be reason to believe that I'm right.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, looked specifically at VO2 max (the capacity of the body to transport oxygen during exercise) which basically represents your level of endurance. Researchers identified 29 genes that seem to predict the capacity to improve VO2 max. They found these specific genes that could categorize people into low, medium and high responders to exercise. That doesn't mean that low responders wouldn't get benefit from regular activity. It just means that some people might have a greater ability to become more fit based on their genes.

Ideally, the more you train, the more fit you should become and your VO2 max should increase. But that's not always the case. Previous studies found that even if participants adhered to the same exercise program, some saw no change in their VO2 max, while others improved by as much as 50%.

This study does have limitations. It was small-scale, and still leaves a lot of questions about how these 29 genes function in the body. It's also important to note that heredity only accounts for about 50% of a person's capacity to improve their fitness level. So even if you're classified as a "low responder", that doesn't mean you'll never be able to run a marathon.

Again, this doesn't mean that your genes will prevent you from seeing other benefits from regular activity. Weight loss, improved blood pressure, lower cholesterol, etc. are all benefits of exercise regardless of your DNA.

What do you think?

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My fitness level has increased since I have been consistently working out. I don't know the fitness levels of my relatives now but I remember growing up that my sister and brother were always active in school activities being in the band and playing sports and cheerleading while I stayed inside hiding my weight. I would dance in my room but that was the only activity I would do and not daily. I know that I plan to one day run a race. I'm working on that. Need to lose some more weight upper body...chest. lol I'll do it because I want to. No genes involved. lol Thanks! Report
Some people are more physically gifted than others. This is true. Some people also seem to have more mental strength than others. My sister attributed her success in college running more to her ability to tolerate high levels of stress and pain than her actually physical abilities and repeatedly stated that there are plenty of more physically capable athletes than her, but that she was able to beat many of them because of her mental strength.

Not everyone can be an elite athlete. All world class athletes do not end every race in a tie. They all work just as hard, but someone always finishes first and someone always finishes last. Sometimes it's genetic, sometimes it's training. However, you never know how good you could be unless you try to be good. Just because you may *think* you aren't cut out for success doesn't make it so, unless you just don't try. You never know what you can achieve until you try to achieve it. Most of us don't realize our true potential and can achieve far more than we give ourselves credit for.

You can do it. Only one person can be the best. Being healthy is not about being THE best. It's about being YOUR best. Report
I totally believe this. It seems like, no matter how often or how far I run, my endurance improves only marginally, while my husband's improves significantly. Report
YOGA is something everyone can do. Report
Did this study take into account the fitness of the participants and their current exercise program before starting this same training program? Participants who started more fit than others would see less of an improvement. And what type of training program was it? Long duration aerobic exercise would cause less of an improvement in VO2 than high intensity interval training, especially for someone who has trained that way for a while. I'm just wondering if they really eliminated all other variables that could have caused the differing results. Causation is really difficult to establish. Report
Apart from any scientific study, we have learned historically that some people were quicker than others regardless of training and diet. Nature has selected for the quickest and leanest until McDonalds replaced hunting and gathering. Las Vegas thrives upon this question of natural gifted ability VS courage and cunning. That's why they still have to play the game and not rely upon the numbers only. I have always bet on courage and cunning to win the ultimate quest. Report
It just seems to make sense that everyone wouldn't have the same ability to achieve the same fitness levels. I don't see this as an excuse for anything. Just because I will never be a body builder doesn't mean I'm not going to weight train.
The ones that would use this as an excuse are those that use excuses so either way they aren't pushing themselves anyway. Report
Greetings, My mom also had fat around the middle. I got rid of mine by walking 7 miles a day. I stopped walking to 2 miles a day . Middle came back. Still trying to get rid of it. ZZZ Report
just another reason for us to quit comparing ourselves to everyone else. This is why they have things like airbrush and photoshop to make everyone look alike....Getting healthy is an experiment of ONE. Report
I certainly believe genes make some people better athletes than others, but we all have the capacity to improve our fitness. I'm glad there's no easy way for people to figure out if they are responders or have these genes because that might cause some people to throw up their hands and quit. Even if it's harder for some than others, we all benefit from pushing ourselves and getting fitter. Report
With all due respect, my comment is for those commentors who worry that the article is condoning people who use the excuse not to exercise or do something because of their genes, etc. We should read the entire article, including the last paragraph that indicates the article writer isn't saying to use your genetic make up as an excuse: "Again, this doesn't mean that your genes will prevent you from seeing other benefits from regular activity. Weight loss, improved blood pressure, lower cholesterol, etc. are all benefits of exercise regardless of your DNA."

I get a little miffed when people don't read the entire article, then "accuse" the writer of insinuating something that he or she didn't. And what does "politically correct" (as in above comment) have to do with the gist of this article???
Thank you SO much for this blog, Jen!

I had a horrible childhood in terms of physical fitness achievement. Regardless of weight or outdoor activities - I grew up in Alaska and cross-country skied for years - I could never meet those stupid President's standards for physical fitness. AAARGH! I hated always not being able to keep up or run as fast, no matter what efforts I made.

This study isn't discouraging to me at all. It reinforces that I only have control over what I have control over. It reinforces that if I've made great efforts and only gotten so far, then that's what my body's up to, and just stop comparing myself to everyone else!

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Report
Good information. If there is a way for people to understand how their individual body works (VO2max, more slow twitch vs fast twitch muscle, which genes they have) they would be able to tailor workouts and diet that would benefit them the most. In the end, though, we all need to get up, set our goals, and to get out there and do it. Report
I ran a half marathon with two friends this past fall. They were pretty much slackers in training. They typically trained two days per week. One decided that not running two weeks in advance of the race would be a good idea.

I was carrying an extra 35 lbs and they were at average healthy weights. So it's not surprising I was slower. But I have done halfs at a healthy weight before. They ran as fast or faster than my top of shape half marathon PR. I just walked away thinking, I have to work like crazy for a 2 hour half marathon. They did it almost effortlessly.

One decided she didn't want to run any more races, because she would feel like she should do better and therefore train more. I thought, if I had your natural ability, I would be inspired to train more. Don't you know that with a little work you could run a BQ?

But at the end of the day, I guess that was her best given the effort she is willing to exert and I know that I am capable of the same because I am willing to put in more effort. Report
Yes, our genetics very much influence our body types, metabolisms, musculature and VO2Max capacities. But our bodies combine ALL OF THOSE THINGS. Plus, nutrition, training, mentality and environmental factors also have a HUGE impact on our bodies. These various genetic traits do not at all negate the fact that exercise makes you healthier and ANYBODY can be athletic, even if they can't be a world-class Olympian.

I worry that a blog/study like this will simply encourage those who don't think they're genetically "blessed" to not train as hard or work out as much as they should, thinking they're just "facing facts." NONE OF US have any reasonable (ie, not insanely expensive) way of knowing how much fast twitch/ slow twitch muscle we have, what our 29 genes responsible for VO2 capacity are doing, or how much of our endurance is due to family vs. environment and habits.

So don't think of your genetics as an excuse. "Playing with the cards you're dealt" doesn't mean folding your hand -- it means playing through to the end and giving it your best, no matter what. Report
I honestly found the comments about this blog more interesting to read than the blog itself! I agree with people who feel that even though they never may be top athletes, or the fastest or strongest, it's no reason to give up on your journey towards a healthier lifestyle. I've never been an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but it's been a lifelong dream of mine, and one that I'm confident I will achieve. I've been overweight, obese, really, and sedentary for most of my life. There is a strong history of obesity, heart problems, strokes, and cancer in my family. I don't find this discouraging, though, it's just one more piece of the puzzle that makes me who I am.

I'm confident that if I keep working out regularly I will see results not only on the scale but in my speed and endurance. I am going to become a runner and run a 5K someday, and will be able to call myself an athlete.

Thanks for such a great read! Report
I think the message is that we can all benefit and improve from working out, eating better, etc.
But just because you do those things and stick to a regimented race plan you may still be beat by someone that didn't .... Not fair!
We can complain but it will not change the facts.
I work hard at improving speed and stamina but never seem to improve. I can just give up, accept that I've peaked, or keep trying.... I'll run as hard as I can tonight and look for improvement. Report
Seems true enough...I was never real active as a teen or in my 20's and didn't have a problem with my weight, my mom was never real active either- sadly my daughter is not eithre. I see a trend. Report
I found the VO2 max info very interesting. Even when I was 17 and a tad underweight, I did not have the endurance for running. Almost 30 years & 50 lbs later, I have decided to give running another try. I know I will never be an "athlete", but my aim is to slowly increase my endurance & speed and to just push myself to do my best. It does help to know that there are legitimate reasons that I will never finish first, but as long as I strive for my best (and hopefully finish), I am still a winner. Report
I think this is very true. I train very hard and diligently in all of my races (I have run several 5,8, and 10k's) and I lose weight, get in great shape and feel good, but I can't seem to get my speed up no matter what I do. I've been pushing hard this time, but I really think that I just don't have the make-up to do it. Doesn't mean I'm not going to keep trying though! :) Report
We're all different - with different abilities, different capacities and limits. Just like we never really know what goes in another person's home, what they struggle with or what they think, we also never know another person's physical abilities. A good reason not to judge others. And not to beat ourselves up when we don't achieve fitness as quickly as others do or as quickly as we think we should. Report
I find this kind of suspect. It makes logical sense and would be a good starting point to form an hypothesis to be tested, but from reading the article and the blog I don't really see that the evidence is strong enough for any conclusions to be made at this point. Firstly, I can't find the actual peer-reviewed journal article. Does anyone have a link? Without looking at the methodology from the article it's kinda hard to have any reasonable opinion. As someone else has already mentioned, it is very difficult to experimentally manipulate people. Do they take into account nature vs nurture?
Secondly, the conclusions in the article (not the blog, but are these the same conclusions from the paper? I don't know...and neither does anyone else) are somewhat worrying. Eg:

"But down the road, the findings may have practical uses..... It may also help out with job selection, if a job requires a high level of fitness."

Great, according to this we'll all be outfitted in colour coded jumpsuits and be assigned our jobs according to our genetics in no time at all.

I know that the blog doesn't intend it this way, but the article is pretty much saying, 'oh, sure, exercise is good for you even if you are a slow responder....but don't bother trying for anything greater, because genetically you can't and we won't accept your attempts"...nice

Sure, it makes logical sense...but without any real substance. People are just going to use this to be 'happy with the status quo' and who knows...maybe someone who could (genetically) excel won't even bother to try because they assume they can't.

Well. I guess this is good news. Both of my parents were very athletic--my father was a professional athlete, as a matter of fact. I was physically active as a child and teen--Now, I'm pretty much of a dud, but I guess there's still hope. :) Report
This is quite interesting.. My mother is active, but overweight, like her mom...and my father, tall & skinny... me? I'm working on it still! lol Report
make sense to me but I'll still do the exercise cause it feels good! Report
I think there may be something to it. My parents were not very athletic and neither are my brother and I. Report
I've always maintained that my body is a result of years of genetic selection, resulting in someone who is designed to carry buckets of water long distances across the frozen steppes of Russia. I'm all about endurance and haven't much speed. Report
WHEW! And I thought I was just a woose! I have tried running but get so overheated, I have to stop. and that was when I as 125 pounds and trying to be thinner! nice to know there might be a physical reason Report
Intriguing!! Proves to the, "Oh, yeah, yer' just lazy," criticizers, that there is an inner measuring stick going on that has nothing to do with wanting to be a Gold Medalist, or somewhere at the head of the class physically.

This isn't some fly-by-night research, but took a couple a' decades, with SCIENTISTS working on a series of studies, so I'm pretty sure this info is fairly accurate, if not conclusive.

Bottom line- They identified 11 DNA differences that predict some of our ability to get fit. Though heredity counts for 50%, we can still dump weight & receive gr8 health benefits, even IF our 29 genes are in the low category.

INCREDIBLE! Ranking people... to find... those with the the strong (pun intended) ability to train using those with the highest endurance levels & maximum physical exquisiteness, & this is just the tip of the iceberg!!

What wonderful things can be accomplished with this knowledge? What diabolical means could be (if not already) pursued? I'm more of the bringin' up the rear kind a' level, sooo, am I an obsolete model?!

Reminds me of the movie, Soldier (1998) where people were selected at birth, & trained to turn off compassion, & become killing machines! I sure hope our scientific investigations are using measuring sticks for intelligence too!! Report
If people are going to use this to justify being a couch potato then they are going to use ANYTHING as an excuse. They don't truly want to change.

That doesn't take away from truths that came from the study. Knowing that this is the case can also inspire someone to keep going. They may never be the best, but they can enjoy all of the benefits from doing it anyway! Report
Cool and inspiring Report
I've been running for over a year now, and it's painfully obvious that I will never be at the front of the pack. :-) I've never doubted that some people are genetically predisposed to be better athletes than others, and in different ways - such as endurance athletes versus sprinters. But just because I'm a ridiculously slow runner doesn't mean I don't get out there. I'm usually last or close to last, but I finish. My fitness has improved dramatically.

If everyone who couldn't be Albert Einstein let that fact discourage them from learning algebra, or everyone who couldn't be Maria Callas decided it wasn't worth humming along with the radio, the world would be a much emptier (and dumber and more boring) place. Exercising our bodies is a natural function that brings us mental, physical, and spiritual benefits, benefits that are much more fundamental to our needs than a 1st place trophy. Recognizing that we have differential abilities can be empowering and freeing. For me, it gives me permission to be just as proud of a 12-minute mile as someone else might be of a 7-minute mile. The only person we ultimately compete against is ourselves. Report
If only 50% is genes-dependent, that still leaves us 50% capacity to impact and improve. Glass is half full from my perspective! Report
This article just got me really excited! I have always identified with my mother, who has always struggled with her weight, making wise food choices, little exercise....But, my father was a long distance runner and track star! There is no reason I cannot hang my hat on that star, instead! Report
I think that no matter how hard I want to and how hard I try, I'll never be a really good painter. I might make ok, but that really, really good level isn't out there for me and I know it. I think this is the same thing. Not everyone is cut out for everything and that's just the way it is. Report
No matter what I do - I can't get "fit".

I played a couple of seasons of very low grade soccer and trained hard - put in 100% of what I had in the games - but still suffered with the huffy, puffy, can't go one more step unfit me. Did it stop me? Heck no, I ran, I laughed, I missed the ball as often as I got it.

I don't think I will ever be fit like the rest of my family, they are able to do physical activity and build their fitness levels in correlation to their participation.

I agree with Coach Jen - I wasn't built for it (genetics or otherwise), but it doesn't stop me from giving it a red hot go. Report
I skimmed some of the comments, and I am sorry that some people found your blog to be discouraging. I don't think it is. The reality is that we all start where we are with what we have, and our progress in exercise (as in all other things) is determined in part by genes (just like everything else), and in part by our lifestyle and the decisions we make.

No two of us are identical, and we all start with some combination of body weight, lean muscle mass, exercise habits, diet, sleep habits, and other lifestyle factors.

Sure. I think I could improve my physical condition a lot more if I didn't have to go to work, if I ate an ideal diet, if I didn't have children (and the physical consequences of pregnancy), and if I cut out other favorite pastimes to put more effort into exercising, and if I could afford a personal trainer, but I'm not going to put that theory to the test because it isn't realistic. I am what I am, and I've got to make the best of it. We are not all gifted athletes (nor do we all aspire to be), but that doesn't mean that we don't all benefit from exercise. We all need goals, and if we were all elite athletes, the word "elite" would cease to have any meaning in this context, and we would all be searching for other goals to make our lives meaningful.

I thought it was a great blog, by the way, and I agree with Swisspatti (#43):

"March to your own drummer, dance to your own music, walk/run at your own pace ~ just keep moving, have fun and you know you're doing your body good!!"

By the way, I think any study on this subject is going to have some limitations, as you pointed out, which doesn't mean it's a bad study. It does mean that you lack certainty, and that you have to consider what other factors might account for differing results. A *rigorous* study would probably pose many logistical difficulties. It would probably involve drawing a sample of people, and randomly assigning them to "usual exercise and lifestyle" or "optimal training and controlled lifestyle," following them longitudinally for a defined period of time, and then determining whether all of those in the "optimal training and controlled lifestyle" group had achieved optimal VO2 max. Then you would have to somehow enforce the groupings, and control for differing expectations on the part of study participants and trainers, which could also have an effect on the results. It's very difficult to manipulate human beings experimentally. Just a thought... (I used to design studies.)

Great thought-provoking blog, and keep running! Speed isn't everything. Report
I agree that some people will use this study to justify sitting on the couch instead of exercising! Report
Talent is definitely a part of any sport- we used to say it was talent at least. Now we say it's genetics. Either way, it's both luck and hard work that get someone to the top, and no amount of hard work is going to get me to a 2:15 marathon. Then again, no amount of luck ever got someone there without work. Report
I dunno - sounds to me like another high-tech excuse to use about why something is not possible and not working - e.g., I just can't do itl it's not in my genes! Report
Phewy! :(
Isn't this a kin to muscle types. Short bursts of power vs endurance which is why sprinters aren't marathoner and vis versa?
For me I've been more sucessful at strenght training than my running. Lighter weights are not a challenge but heavier weights make me biulky. Not an ideal body for a female. Report
As stated and as some think, the more you train, the more fit you should become and your ability should increase. This is not very comforting or for some, it may be as we should stop the vicous hereditary curses. It doesn't say you can't and I was raised, if I put my mind to it, I can do anything and I still believe that! Keep the faith! Report
I know I want to run and I love running. I also know I have never had speed and I never will. I have not given up but I think I am one of those people who is more endurance than speed Report
I don't think this article was designed to discourage anyone from breaking out of a comfort zone nor provide an excuse to not train for big events. I do think--and agree--that some people are genetically predisposed to athleticism and the rest of us have to work at it. Lance Armstrong was a great athlete before cancer, but trained himself to be a phenomenal athlete by actually increasing the size of his heart muscle through his post-cancer training.

Anyone can train beyond genetic predispositions. Heck, I'm a middle aged asthmatic from a family riddled with heart disease, mental illness, and sedentary inclinations--and I've trained for multiple half-marathons, a couple of full marathons, and even an ULTRA trail marathon. If I can do it, anyone can. It just takes focus and fire and perseverence. Report
The title of this article grossly misrepresents reality.

I also don't think that this general theme serves a useful purpose in this context. This isn't exactly a community of people who are under the impression that they're striving to set world records for athletic accomplishment.

While there is evidence that the upper limits of what you can achieve are going to be at least somewhat tied to your genetics, the reality is that virtually everyone can achieve some level of fitness and (to call on your example) the VAST majority of the population is capable of training for and completing a marathon if that's what they should choose to do (and that's far more than most choose to do, so the genetic differences in the upper limits of our physical capacity for most people never play very strongly into their actual day to day lives).

Just talking about the fact that thyroid problems can cause weight issues very rapidly leads to lots and lots of people grabbing onto the excuse "I bet I have a thyroid problem. I might as well not bother changing my lifestyle." Now you're offering them "My body clearly isn't built to benefit much from exercise, it's not worth putting all of this time in."

Also, VO2 Max doesn't translate as directly into physical endurance as your post implies, nor is it as perfect an indicator of athletic capability as implied. Report
Scientists may learn how 'good' we should be able to become. But I doubt that we will ever be able to measure how *great* we can be. The power of human courage and drive on top of training is a key factor in extraordinary performance. There have been olympic medal winners with any kind of physical limitation you can name who still achieved top status due to drive; and many with perfect genetics who never got beyond merely okay.

Further, the study didn't say anything about what changing a training approach might do :)

Jen, I also don't think you're giving up. What it sounds like you're doing is deciding you are satisfied with your current approach as fits your body's normal balance, and that doing something different might require things that are not so good for your overall health or family - having to add more time investment in recovery (see Dara Torres' book), pay for expensive massage therapies, put yourself at higher risk of injury or shortening your running career, or take time away from your other pursuits. Have you heard of "Achilles Choice? - essentially a short life with fame or a long happy one without it. This is something we all need to consider when we set goals: what will we sacrifice to achieve them. There is nothing wrong with making the decision that you are comfortable with your current training approach and pace. It may be that the best decision for enjoying lifelong healthy running is to do exactly what you're doing now. Only you can know this. And you should not feel you have to apologize to anyone for making whatever decision you choose.

Sorry to be long winded here but I am personally spending a lot of time contemplating this whole issue of goals and tradeoffs and so-called natural limitations! You hit a nerve :) Good blog.

I think genetics are a very powerful force in determining our physical abilities. There's only so much that exercise and workouts can possibly do to overcome one's genetic makeup. Physical traits like stature and muscle makeup are just part of every person's natural inheritance. That doesn't mean that everyone shouldn't be physically active for the health and enjoyment of it. But pushing beyone one's natural physical limitations should be avoided, as injury is bound to result. Report
I was in a Body Shoppe program last year that the Cardiac Rehab Unit at the hospital put on. The focus was to get people to eat better and make exercise a priority. When I did my first treadmill test my VO2 max was 10% and at the end of the 12 week program my VO2 max was 82%. They said I was a textbook example of what exercise can do for a person. :) Report
I absolutely agree with this article! Report
thanks for your blog it is interesting. Report
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