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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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I think it is a combination of both. Your genes do help you be more athletic and faster, however, you can work hard and improve your skills and become just as good. Report
I believe it. Lance Armstrong, the mulitple Tour de France winner, was reported on the news to have some physical attribute that gave him a competitive edge. I don't recall if it was a larger heart or a greater oxygen capacity. But no matter. I'm no Lance Armstrong but when I move, I burn calories - Thank goodness! I Report
I've always felt that genetics plays a part in our fitness. I'm considered very fit, but I'm a very average runner. I just don't think I'm built to be a runner. It's just not in my genes or my knees. eh-hem. However, I am a particularly good cyclist. I won't ever win the Tour de France, but I do feel I'm better suited on a bike. And that's just the way the genetic ball bounced for me. I do still like running occasionally, but I'll never be good enough to compete. I'm okay with that.

I'm one of the few who is actually encouraged by this -- it does explain a bit. And it reinforces my belief that for me, it's not being at the front of the pack that's most important, but being in the pack at all. :-) Report
I think we all know that some people have more athletic ability than others, and that practice and training isn't going to make up for that. But this did bother me a little, until I got to the part about heredity only accounting for 50 percent of fitness level. If that's the case, I'm not going to worry about the part I can't control--I'll just concentrate on what I can control, and get to my own particular level of fitness. (Not that I'm ever going to run a marathon, but I do want to bicycle across the country at some point.) Report
follow a great program and you can even beat out the "gene" issue Report
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!! Report
good article. I do know that genes make up who you are. I come from a family of tummies. We all have weight around our middle. No matter how many workouts I do for that area I still have a tummy. But I don't let that stop me as working out is good for me in so many ways. I even continue to work out my middle section. Report
My husband of 37 years is a runner/racewalker. I tried to become a runner and kept waiting for that magic minute when it all came together and I got the "runner's high". Never happened. I finally became a walker about 3 years ago when my client and neighbor kept hounding me to walk with her. It took a while and she was patient but now I can easily walk 3 or 4 miles with her and at a healthy pace and talk at the same time. I hate going to the gym. I do love to swim but don't. I love dance aerobics but only if I don't get bored with the same routines over and over. I like yoga but don't go and I have trouble operating a DVD. Guess I have those don't like to exercise genes. Report
For any who found this discouraging, don't! Again, it was a small study + whatever you do, exercise wise & eating healthier, is going to help you in the long run. Don't give up whatever you're doing! When I started this journey a little over 2 years ago, I didn't believe I could run at all; I'm still not a great runner, but I can walk/jog for longer periods of time than when I started and for that, I'm very proud!!! Report
What? Does this mean that ALL people are not created equal? That doesn't sound politically correct to me. And does that mean I use the "devil made me do it" excuse? Report
Thanks Mom! Report
I have had friends who just loved to run and can just go and go and go. I've been running for 3 years and that isn't the case. I've always felt people can be naturals at it, I'm not one of them. That doesn't mean I won't stop trying, just means don't get discouraged and not try at all Report
I found this article to be rather discouraging. Report
Interesting. Report
I honestly don't see that this means some people can't get more fit, it just means that they aren't going to win a marathon. I don't intend to enter a marathon so it's perfectly okay. It does explain some things but it doesn't mean you shouldn't exercise. Some people will take it that way, but those people are going to look for an excuse anyway and they will find one. I am going to keep at this and darn, I won't enter the Olympics! Report
Great artical.. I LOVE to run on my treadmill,BUT I have been so consistant with my running on my mill,I have blownout 3 treadmills with all my use.I never ever dreamed I would beable to run & love it. I stated out doing 3-5 minute runs now I can go for 90 plus minutes & I really like how healthy I have become. I also never ever thought I would be like this today.
I'm the Healthest in my family & the oldest of 5 kids. Report
It seems like a no brainer to me. That's why some people are olympians and some are not. Report
I don't think the article is suppose to be discouraging. There are people that do better than others at athletics and that's ok. You don't have to compete with them. Just do the best that you can and enjoy it. Report
So my Levis really do make a difference.

- Ralph Report
I agree. I think my husband and sister-in-law will never be as fit as me. No matter if I stooped exercising and they kept going. When we were all fit together I still ran circles around them. I am naturally fit. Not always healthy. Report
My genes don't determine my level of fitness, the amount of exercise I do does. But yeah, some people are better genetically predisposed than others. I've never been particularly gifted physically and have quit my share of sports after realizing I didn't have what it takes to be outstanding at them. Happily, my attitude is changing these days. It's become more about competing with myself now and more for the love of it. If I'm having fun pursuing my own personal best, that's really all that matters. Report
I can see how we can be genetically predisposed to things, but I also agree that no matter what its worth trying and trying and trying to you succeed. I am the turtle in the race, but I want to finish with pride and doing my best!:) Report
I think this makes a lot of sense- but it goes beyond vo2 max. I can see when I run a race, the people up front "look like" runners, and then there are the rest of us. I am just grateful that I can get out there and move- I for one am not looking to win the race Report
Not sure, don't want to think that my genes are holding me back or making me better... I guess it could, but I just want to do my best and feel my best regardless. Report
This is really interesting... I exercise a lot but don't seem to be able to progress in some ways. For example, I've been going to jazzercise several times a week pretty faithfully for over two years, yet I can only push myself so much without getting winded - and that limit never seems to change. Same with cycling, cross-country skiing, etc. Over the years I've gotten stronger, more muscular, etc. - but my lung capacity hasn't changed. It's possible I have very slight asthma (I had some tests done a bunch of years ago), but since the inhaler I was given didn't make a difference and since I have no other symptoms I don't do anything about it. So maybe there's something to this research! Report
It's rather silly, but it does upset me "in theory" that I can't be the best at anything I want to be (and I'm 56), but it doesn't disturb me "in fact." So I'll continue to THINK that I could be the best if I wanted to, and continue to compete at the back of the pack because group athletic events are just downright fun and it feels great to finish. Report
Now we all know that even lots of practice is not going to get us to Carnegie Hall, so it isn't surprising that lots of practice is not going to get us to the front of the pack in a race. Thirty years ago, when I was very young and had much more capacity, I started running. After many months I was quite proud of my progress and got my husband to come out for a run with me. He had done no running at all - for our entire marriage. After 1 block I realized I couldn't keep up with him and just as I was about to say something - he said "Running this slowly is driving me crazy!" Needless to say, jogging is not a family sport for us.

However, I go to the gym almost every day and I do the treadmill and the elliptical. I do them at my own pace and I am in terrific shape, healthwise. My weight is down, my bloodpressure is down, my cholesterol is down. It doesn't matter if we are the best -- it only matters that we do it. Report
I believe that having passion for what you do will help you to succeed as much as a strong set of genes. Report
Amen! but being a person who's experienced this their whole life I'm not surprised. I think it goes even further into metabolic rates, ability to lose weight, etc. (i.e. I thought someone should be able to lose weight playing at least 60 minutes of all-out raquetball each day, six days a week, on a 1700 cal diet, but alas...) Report
I actually found this blog very inspiring! I am reminded of gym class years ago when I was at a healthier weight and I was pushed to run harder and faster. I never did get faster and because of that I got a poor grade in running and felt bad about myself. I guess this article proves that I can still work out and get benefits, even if it doesn't show through increased speed. Report
I'm not a runner, but I do a lot of swimming. I've lost 60 pounds in the last year so my body weight has decreased considerably and I've been lifting weights to improve strength in my arms, but I'm not really swimming any faster than I was a year ago. What has increased is my ability to swim distance. Report
I agree that not everyone is built to excell in all things. I'll never win a marathon. I'm too curvy for that. But that doesn't mean I can't run a marathon (I have). And it doesn't mean that I can't get faster. I can compete against myself. I think the study is probably accurate. But I'm concerned that too many Americans are going to read it and say, "See? Why bother getting fit? I'm genetically supposed to be fat!" Sigh. Why do we have to be such an all or nothing culture? Report
Interesting. I have a ways to go, so I may not be able to tell until I get closer to my goal. Thanks for sharing. Report
I think there is a lot to be said for genetics and fitness ability. However, I also think that anyone can be fit and healthy if they put enough time and effort into it.

Everyone has a predisposition for their body type, whether that be ectomorph, endomorph or mesomorph (genetic gods). Ectomorphs will have trouble putting on muscle, endomorphs (myself included) will always gain fat easily and mesomorphs can do minimal training and still keep their lean physiques (like I said...genetic gods). However, this doesn't have to stop us from training and trying to be the best US that we can be.

Let's take a look at athletes. Due to genetics, Paula Radcliffe would probably be a pretty bad sprinter, but she is amazing at running marathons. Her tall, lean physique is ideal for those long endurance races. She found her activity and that happens to be marathons. In contrast, Flo Jo would probably not be very good at running marathons, but she ran sprints like a champ (and medalled in the Olympics many times).

Our bodies might not be genetically predisposed to excel at all sports, but there is at least one sport or activity that each of us is made to do. I think it's all about finding that activity. We may never get good enough at it to get to the Olympics, but you don't need to be an Olympian to be fit and healthy :-) Report
It's this very kind of information that many times will kill all the hope of some who want to get healthy. They will think that they are doomed because of genetics. I hate stuff like this. But I am fortunate enough that I have done my own research and found that the results are not set in stone and you can change DRAMATICALLY, avoid diseases as well as completely recover, IF you are willing to look past the "experts" who write these articles and seek out those who have done the seemingly impossible! I'm one of those people and I'm so thankful for those who have gone ahead and didn't take the "experts" at their word and proved them wrong. I say don't let anyone stop you from living the life you want. If you are willing to work for it (and it does require effort), you can change almost ANYTHING! Take it from one who is more than worth it! Report
To me it seems common sense that each individual is going to have a different capacity for "fitness", and that it's not simply a matter of action and environment. There are physiological boundaries for each of us, and there's no way those boundaries are going to be in the same place for everyone. That's the power of genetics.
The problem is that the vast majority of us haven't even begun to explore the upper end of our fitness boundary, so it kind of looks like everyone is capable of achieving as much as the most fit of us. Report
I think genetics have a lot to do with what your body is ultimately good at. I always use horses as an example for this. Arabian horses are beautiful but their biggest genetic bounty is the slow twitch fibers that make up the lion's share of their muscles. That's what makes them relatively lean and able to handle long distances with ease (think Kenyan long distance runners). Quarter horses have more fast twitch fibers in their muscles. They are bulkier and can go very fast over a short distance (think elite sprinters). Some horses are more able to make use of their abdominal muscles (through genetics and training) and that allows them to do dressage movements better because they can carry themselves in such a way that they can carry more weight on their back end (a horse typically carries 60% of their weight on their front legs) and get more elevation in their front end (think Lipizzaner stallions).

Try to figure out what your body does best. That doesn't mean that there aren't Arabian horses that sprint or Quarter Horses that do endurance, because there are. Do what you enjoy but recognize that some people might have hit the genetic jackpot for their chosen sport and you haven't. Deal. Compete against yourself. I think you'll find more satisfaction with that in the long run, if you'll excuse the pun.

since my fitness is sort of my little private delight - I don't really compare myself to others so I don't really care if some folk can get "fitter" than I. For me, fitness is definitely not a contest.

That doesn't mean I don't enjoy striving for more at whatever more I want... just that .. I'm not really looking at the other guy. Report
It took me YEARS to be able to use the treadmill at 4.0 and not be jogging. I wasn't even that overweight at the time. But with determination and perseverance 4.0 is now a walk and 5.5 is an easy jog. I believe it takes some people longer than others to get fit. Maybe it is in your genes. Report
I love to run, but I do get discouraged that I can't seem to run as fast as some people. I would like to think that I make up for it for just getting out there and doing it! I just wonder if I trained more I could increase my speed, but it is not a priority for me. Report
I agree with Neutralhills about the poor English. But more than anything, this article TICKS ME OFF. Ok, fine, so my genetics say I won't compete in the olympics. It DOESN'T mean I won't be wonderfully fit and beautiful. When people hear things like this about their genetics, they have a tendency to give up on their fitness goals. How on earth is this a GOOD thing to read about on spark?

People surpass their limitations all the time on sheer will and determination. I've seen people in wheelchairs compete in marathons. I've heard deaf people play music and seen them dance to drums. At one time, deaf people were considered retarded, and they have proven those myths false at every turn. I've seen genetically large people (over 400 pounds) become so fit, they became fitness instructors. Don't you DARE tell me what I CAN'T do!!!

I see absolutely NO PURPOSE to this article.

I'm reminded of an expression that goes something like this: Based on the laws of physics, a bumble bee is not supposed to be able to fly. Just don't tell the bumblebee. Report
I know that different people have different physical abilities. We are all built so differently. For this reason, I compare myself only with myself. I can log my progress whether I'm going further, faster, or for longer periods of time. This is what's important to me. Report
Inexcusably poor English used in the headline of this article. Your activity level and diet, more than anything else, determines how fit you are. Your genetic predisposition determines how your fitness compares to someone else of the same age and gender who maintains a similar lifestyle and level of activity.

I have a heart condition called a congenital transposition of the great vessels. Am I ever going to compete in a triathlon? Hell no. But thanks to 8 months of regular daily exercise and strength training 3x a week, I can change a flat tire on my vehicle without injuring myself and I'm now healthy enough to wear out my kid when we play sports together. That's a major improvement over how I used to gimp around with a cane.

Bottom line: follow the Spark program and fitness recommendations and you'll find yourself living the best life you're able to, even if you don't wind up wearing Olympic gold because of some genetic quirk. Report
While this is an interesting study--it still has a lot of problems before it can b applied generally. I bet that when they add more people from different backgrounds they will get different results. Report
WOW. I was just thinking about this. I have tried to push myself to go faster in the past and ended up with injuries. Now, I am thrilled that at my age I am running at my PACE for the joy of it. To think that only 12 years ago, I was close to hobbling around with a cane to support the heavy load of weight I was carrying. I am finisher and proud of it. Report
Thank you for writing about this study (and the past research). I'm proud of my running accomplishments - and through consistent work I see improvement - but I will always be boggled by people who are so much faster than I am. Your blog tells me not to beat myself up over it. I'll work on that 50% that I can change, but learn to be content over that 50% I can't change. Report
I came across this study a couple of weeks ago and wasn't surprised by the findings. It also gave me a feeling of "I'm doing ok." I admitted and accept that I run but I am not a runner. I will complete my 1/2 marathon in September, not for time, not for glory, not for recognition but for something much more important...a sense of accomplishment! Report
I totally agree with your Blog! I always have to work much harder and longer at my workouts but I just make it a part of my daily challenges. I really don't care about speed at my age just accomplishments. Thanks for the great Blog! Report
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