The amazing transformative effects of exercise are on display in a new study from the University of Copenhagen, which shows that just six weeks of exercise led to changes in the epigenetic information of skeletal muscle cells in young men.

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Although the beneficial effects of exercise are well established, the mechanisms behind them are still not as well understood as they should be. A new study from the University of Copenhagen shows that such effects are likely to be caused at least in part by changes to the very structure of our DNA. Such changes are commonly referred to as ‘epigenetic’.

In simple terms, DNA forms a kind of instruction manual for the production of molecules in all our cells. Some sections of our DNA are genes, which are instructions for building proteins, while other sections are called enhancers and regulate which genes are switched on or off, when, and in which tissue. 

The scientists found, for the very first time, that exercise actually reprograms the enhancers in regions of our DNA that are known to be associated with the risk of developing disease.

Exercise Epigenetics Study

“Our findings provide a mechanism for the known beneficial effects of exercise. By connecting each enhancer with a gene, we further provide a list of direct targets that could mediate this effect,” says Professor Romain Barrès from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, the senior author of the research, which was published in Molecular Metabolism.

The scientists began with the hypothesis that endurance exercise training would remodel the activity of gene enhancers in skeletal muscle. To test this, they recruited healthy young men and put them through a six-week endurance exercise program. Biopsies of the recruits’ thigh muscle before and after the exercise intervention were taken and examined if changes in the epigenetic signature of their DNA occurred after training.

Advisors to the British government have recommended that the government launch a national ‘work out to help out’ scheme to mitigate the devastating health effects of the pandemic response.

Examination of the biopsies showed that the structure of many enhancers in the skeletal muscle of the young men had been altered by the six-week program. They discovered that many of the regulated enhancers have already been identified as hotspots of genetic variation that are particularly associated with human disease.

The scientists speculate that the beneficial effects of exercise on organs distant from muscle, like the brain, may largely be mediated by regulating the secretion of muscle factors. In particular, they found that exercise remodels enhancer activity in skeletal muscle that are linked to cognitive abilities. Future research may centre on the identification of exercise training-induced secreted muscle factors targeting the brain.

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