Scientists have made mice live 20 per cent longer by changing their DNA. Now, new DNA fitness tests claim they can test your genes and deliver you a tailored fitness programme to suit your individual biochemistry. But are they worth it?
Lucy Collins was a regular gym-goer for three years, attending three times a week to work out on the cardio machines for an hour at a time. ‘I pumped away on the treadmill or cross trainer,’ says Lucy, 32 an events manager. ‘But the results came to nothing, despite following the standard advice to do cardio to lose weight. I never lost anything.’ Why wasn’t Lucy’s training working?
The answer could lie in our DNA and the discovery of genes that correspond with all manner of fitness from the way we respond to different types of exercise to how quickly we recover from injury.
As a result a raft of the new genetic fitness profiling tests are attempting to take the guesswork out of fitness. They claim one person may be genetically predisposed to burn fat and respond well to moderate, endurance-based activities – like running or working out on the cross-trainer – while another may be more suited to lose weight and tone up through sprints or resistance training. By testing our bodies for those genes they say they can deliver bespoke fitness programmes based on our individual biochemistry which could change the way we train.
Leading the way is DNAFit. Launched in April this year, it’s a genetic test that tells someone if they are better suited to running long and moderate cardio or sprinting and resistance workouts. For £199 (from dnafit.com) you simply do three cheek swabs – like the ones they do in Law & Order – send it off and two weeks later your results will reveal all.
DNAFit reads 20 genes involved in how your body responds to exercise, how prone it is to injury and how long it takes your muscles to recover from exertion. Then, with that knowledge it delivers a specific training programme based on your DNA make-up in a 20-page personalised read out revealing whether you would be best focusing on activities that require short, sharp bursts of ‘power’ such as sprinting or weight lifting or whether your would respond better to endurance based exercises such as long, leisurely runs or dance classes.
How does it work? While around 99 per cent of human DNA is identical, the other one per cent is what makes us look different and also makes our bodies work in different ways. Known as polymorphisms, these differences are thought in part to be responsible for everything from how easily we put on weight or how we respond to exercise to how our skin will age.
Examining everyone of our 20,000 odd genes would take geneticists forever. These tests have been able to isolate and examine a handful that play a role in the way our bodies respond to fitness. Scientists at DNAFit have handpicked the most well-researched genes in the area of exercise in the categories of power, endurance, soft tissue injury and recovery and worked with exercise physiologists, geneticists and sports coaches to look at the effect those genes have on the body.
Around one fifth of the population are genetically predetermined to not respond to typical exercise regimes. Enter another test called the XRPredict, developed by geneticists at Loughborough University that tests for 27 genes to determine how well you respond to exercise. It costs £199 (xrgenomics.com) and classifies people into exercise ‘low responders’ or someone who struggles to improve their aerobic fitness (about one fifth of us), a low to moderate (about 35 per cent of us), moderate to high (about one quarter) and high exercise responder (the remaining one fifth of us). The point isn’t to single you out at a saddo who will never get into shape but to disprove the assumption that we all reap similar benefits from an aerobic exercise plan. For example, you may gain more benefit from increasing levels of resistance training into your workout and the XRPredict can tell you this.
Some experts recommend caution though. ‘Without knowing everything about someone and all the genetic variations they carry, along with all the lifestyle components of their lives it’s hard to make predictions about people based on looking at a few genes,’ says Professor Jess Buxton, a research geneticist and spokesperson for the British Society of Genetic Medicine.
‘The human genome was sequenced many years ago and we now know lots of variations that affect human health and behaviour but we’re still a long way from the complete picture. For example, looking at gene variants we know about how prone you are to injury is one thing. But while you might be found to have this gene now, in 10 or 20 years time we might discover new variants and find that you also have another version of a gene we don’t yet know about that protects you from injury. My worry is that such tests don’t give a complete picture because science doesn’t yet have one.’
But do they work? Although DNAFit haven’t run any clinical trials on their test, despite some 200 people having had it, they report that anecdotally at least, clients are seeing results. For example, trainer Matt Roberts – who has been using DNAFit with clients for 18 months and has just launched his own version – was training one lady who would often have to miss weeks of working out because of minor injuries.
‘Her results were compromised because she was often too injured to workout,’ says Roberts. ‘The test highlighted that she had a high risk of soft tissue injury so we began focusing her on doing more pre-emptive physiotherapy to help prevent her injuries so she hasn’t missed a workout in 12 weeks.’
Moreover, research done by DNAFit in Toronto found that people perceived receiving advice based on their genes as more credible than standard dietary advice, making them more likely to stick with it.
After taking the DNAFit, Lucy Collins (from this piece’s intro) discovered that she was more suited to ‘power’ based workouts, with her results showing she was 95 per cent inclined towards power and only five per cent towards endurance. Lucy lost six kilos in the first three weeks of her DNAFit bespoke training programme and had reduced her body fat by seven per cent. ‘I feel so much better and actually enjoy going to the gym now,’ says Lucy. ‘My new workout feels more natural, is shorter and feels much easier for me. Best of all, it’s getting me real results.’
Are we then, facing a future where genetic tests are routinely handed out along with gym memberships? Maybe. ‘In the future DNA profiling will become a crucial part of the new bespoke fitness that comes highly tailored to the individual,’ says Matt Roberts. ‘There will be personal devices that you wear on your body that measure your lactic acid, glucose level usage, respiratory rate and sleep patterns and these will be added to your DNA profile to ensure we take all the guesswork out of fitness.’ Watch this space.
Here’s what happened when Healthista Editor Anna Magee tried a DNAFit:
‘I was a chubby teen from a long line of chubby Greek Egyptian women who love their food and have the curves to prove it. But at 22 I discovered the gym and have since been exercising on and off for the last 20 years, shrinking myself to a comfortable size 10. You name it – aerobics, running, weight lifting, yoga – I have done it. What I love most is long, fast walks, leisurely slow jogs or swims and yoga. But I had been injured by long daily runs in the past so stopped. For the last six months I have trying to incorporate some sprints on the treadmill and lifting heavy weights because a trainer told me that’s what I ‘should’ be doing (even though I hate it) to get results. It was making my muscles sore and didn’t feel like fun, truth be told. But if I am honest, it was getting the results. He was right.
I was cynical about the DNAFit test, thinking ‘I know what I should be doing so what’s the point?’ The results were stunning in how unsurprising they were. Indeed, they confirmed the things I already knew about myself. My report said I am much more likely to excel at endurance based activities in a low or moderate intensity – like long, slow jogs and swims.
However it also found I have a moderate injury risk, in particular tendonitis. Well, guess what is the one injury that plagues me no end? Achilles tendonitis! I read it open mouthed, agape at how accurate its findings. It was like having my fitness fortune told. Along with a detailed genetic read out explaining what my results meant and a balanced 12 week programme, the 22 page report also suggested ways to undergo ‘prehabiliation’ to help prevent injury and tendonitis flare-ups in the future.
My bespoke programme included two long slow cardio sessions and one medium pace cardio – I can choose walking, jogging or swimming which I adore. It also features two circuits and one stability or flexibility session such as yoga. The function of these extra sessions is to strengthen and stretch my muscles in order to help prevent injury in the future and balance out my body. There were none of the sprints or heavy weights I hated, only the kinds of things I loved and my body loved to do.
I got these results in May this year and given that I had cold hard science telling me that I could do the things I loved and dump the things I hated, I began doing long slow runs a few times a week and yoga a couple of times each week.
But here’s what happened. Nothing. Other than my tendonitis getting worse, my body simply stayed the same, my weight stayed down – which matters, of course it matters – but it didn’t get stronger or faster or better in any way. And frankly, without any challenge I stayed in my comfort zone of what came easy. It was like a donut-lover eating Krispy Kremes all day. Eventually, it’s going to get tedious.
By the end of July, I had completed the 10km Tesco Race for Life in Hyde Park and my tendonitis was back in full force. Plus frankly, I was bored. It was fun and all jogging along to my indie tunes day in and day out but it was like being in a job that’s easy and routine but somehow unsatisfying – deep down you know you’re not growing because you’re not being challenged. I was coasting. I know I could have tried to run further in increase my endurance but do you have two hours to run a day?
I remain cynical about DNA Fitness tests. I think the reason Lucy from the piece above lost weight was because she went from doing something we know is ineffective – like spending hours on the stepper – to doing sprints and resistance training which science tells us works.
On the one hand a DNA test can tell you what your body is cut out to do comfortably but that very knowledge could be the thing that stops you from challenging yourself on things that might hurt a little but lead to greater things. Like life really – fitness is better done without too much self-knowledge.