Do Genes Dictate Your Health?
I would put my money on the fact that the vast majority of you reading this article have some sort of interest in health and fitness. In fact, simply because you are actually reading this article, I would go as far as to suggest that your interest in health is greater than that of 90% of the population.
Which is obviously a good thing.
This means that you care about what you put in your mouth, actively participate in regular exercise, and typically try and avoid heath negative behaviors as often as possible.
In short, you actively try and dictate your health.
But what about those factors that you can’t control?
What about your genes.
Can Your Genes Impact Your Health?
It may be a little hard to believe, but for more than 100 years scientists have been researching how variations in certain genes can impact various aspects of health – with particular emphasis on disease risk (Institute of Medicine, 2006).
There are a number of specific genetic mutations that have been linked to the onset of somewhat rare and uncommon disease, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia, as well as the early onset of breast cancer (among many others).
In these specific genetic scenarios, the genes identified have mutations with extremely strong associations with a heightened disease risk — at times, even greater than 50%.
However, over the last few years research has shown that certain gene variations can impact the way the body functions at a cellular level.
And one of these diseases that has garnered a huge amount of attention of late is Coronary Heart Disease (or CHD, for short).
Is Coronary Heart Disease Hereditary?
CHD essentially refers to the narrowing of the coronary arteries – the main blood vessels in the body that supply both oxygen and blood to the heart. CHD (also commonly known as coronary artery disease) is one of the most common causes of illness and death in the United States, as well across the rest of the world.
This severe disease typically occurs when cholesterol builds up on the arterial walls, creating the accumulation of plaque. In response, the arteries then narrow, which causes a significant reduction in blood flow to the heart.
As a result, CHD can result in severe chest pain, shortness of breath, and even a heart attack.
Interestingly, there are known genetic factors that can increase the risk of developing the disease, indicating that CHD does have a hereditary component.
Although it is important to note that rather than contribute to the disease directly, these risk factors alter the body’s ability to mitigate plaque accumulation on the arterial wall, affect its capacity to transport fat through the blood and inhibit lipid metabolism throughout the body (Dai, 2016).
As a result, they alternatively contribute to the onset of the disease indirectly, by making potential risk factors more apparent, and more severe.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom.
While these hereditary factors may indeed increase your risk of developing the disease, it certainly doesn’t mean that you will develop the disease.
In fact, on a much more positive note, these genetic risk factors are actually attenuated by a healthy lifestyle.
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Physical Activity and CHD
When it comes to those healthy lifestyle factors to reduce CHD risk, exercise is king.
The regular participation in physical activity has been shown to significantly improve levels of blood cholesterol, enhance lipid metabolism, improve cardiovascular health and function, reduce blood pressure, and enhance insulin sensitivity – all of which are known to prevent against the onset and development of CHD (Varghese, 2016).
It is also necessary to state that the impact that physical activity can have on reducing your risk of CHD is dose-dependent. This means that, at least up until a point, the more physical activity you do, the more profound the effects.
There is a reason that most health organizations recommend you get a minimum of 150 minutes aerobic activity and 2 sessions of weight training in per week – because in this scenario, more is definitely better.
Adapting a Healthy Lifestyle to Prevent CHD
The adoption of a healthy lifestyle should always be your first point of call when it comes to preventing CHD. However, I can certainly appreciate that with our busy lives, this is often easier said than done.
Which is why it is super important to make it as simple as possible.
As previously mentioned, you want to make sure that you are at the very least meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity. The easiest way to go about this is to perform some form of aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, five days per week.
You should also be performing some sort of resistance exercise at least two days per week.
This resistance program doesn’t have to be complex – a simple bodyweight exercise routine done at home will honestly do the trick.
We should note that other key risk factors for CHD include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Eating a diet high in processed foods
With this in mind, other lifestyle changes that can make a huge difference include changing diet, and quitting smoking.
While the smoking risk factor is rather simple to address (note: I said simple, not easy), changing your diet can be somewhat overwhelming at times.
As a result, I again like to keep is as simple as humanly possible.
Try and limit your intake of processed foods and build the bulk of your diet around vegetables (make sure you include some of the green leafy ones daily), fruits, lean cuts of meat, eggs, poultry, and a whole heap of water (Kochar, 2011).
Not only will this improve certain cardiovascular contributors to CHD, but when implemented correctly, may also promote weight loss in overweight individuals – which is integral.
Obesity Gene Overview – Is Obesity Genetic or Environmental?
Now some of you might be looking at the above and thinking to yourself, ‘but isn’t weight gain and obesity also genetic?’
And the answer is a bit underwhelming – being sort of.
Obesity is essentially the result of a chronic and sustained energy surplus (consuming more energy than you are expending), which leads to the excessive storage of triglycerides and fatty acids in the body’s adipose tissue.
Much like our CHD scenario, genetic factors don’t directly influence this – to put it bluntly, these genes can’t produce fat out of thin air.
However, they have been shown to have some indirect influence (Herrera, 2010).
Certain gene variations have been shown to alter the severity of hormonal and nervous system responses to food intake and energy balance, ultimately resulting in heightened sensations of hunger before eating, and reduced sensations of fullness and satisfaction after eating.
As you can imagine, in this scenario, overeating becomes much, much, easier.
But again, while these specific genes certainly do play a role, they are not a death sentence. By paying close attention to your lifestyle, you can still ensure a healthy weight range in maintained, irrespective of your genetic disposition.
Physical Activity and Obesity
Much like CHD, physical activity and exercise should be a key component of anyone looking to reduce their risk of obesity.
Firstly, physical activity improves both cardiovascular and metabolic health in a very big way. As a result, it essentially mitigates the negative effects that excess fat can have on how these systems function on a daily basis.
But more importantly, physical activity increases energy expenditure, which obviously helps reduce the likelihood of entering a sustained energy surplus (Singh, 2015).
This is obviously very important when discussing weight loss for health.
Adapting Healthy Lifestyles to Prevent Obesity
It is important to note that adopting the physical activity guidelines outlined above will certainly help prevent the onset of obesity, it really is only half of the solution.
In conjunction with increased energy expenditure, it is also essential to manage energy intake.
Which can only really be done through diet?
With this in mind, for someone who is within a healthy weight range, the simple dietary recommendations made above should be more than enough to limit weight gain and help prevent obesity.
While there is some evidence to suggest that higher protein diets may offer one of the more effective ways of reducing fat mass and helping fight obesity, I would encourage finding a way of eating that is right for you and then sticks to it with religious vigor.
You see, the hardest part about a weight loss diet is actually sticking to it. If you choose a way of eating that eliminates all of your favorite foods, and only includes things that you hate eating, then I can guarantee that you are not going to adhere to it for very long.
But if you find a way of eating that is bearable and keeps you in an energy surplus, you have a winner.
I should also mention that in the scenario where you don’t know where to start, or have tried many different diets and failed, it would be in your best interest to seek advice from a diet professional first.
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Does High-Intensity Interval Training Prevent CHD and Obesity?
While the physical activity guides are all well and good, they don’t really provide much insight into the type of aerobic exercise that will offer the most benefit when staving off both CHD and obesity.
Which is exactly where high-intensity interval training (or HIIT) enters the discussion.
HIIT is a specific modality of aerobic exercise that revolves around short periods of intense exercise that is alternated with lower intensity periods of recovery.
A very simple example of HIIT regime is to run for 30 seconds at a near maximal intensity, and then spend 30 seconds at a light jog. This protocol could then be repeated for a total of 20 or 30 minutes, providing a simple, yet solid, HIIT session.
Now this demanding form of exercise has two key benefits pertaining to CHD and obesity.
Firstly, it causes a huge spike in energy expenditure during the performance of the activity, and for up to 72 hours after the activity has been completed (Skelly, 2014).
This has both obvious and positive implications for weight management, assisting in the loss of fat mass while significantly reducing your risk of becoming wither overweight or obese (Wewege, 2017).
Secondly, the chronic application of HIIT has been shown to cause significant reductions in resting blood pressure and resting blood sugar, as well as key improvements in markers of cardiovascular and metabolic health.
As I am sure you can imagine, this greatly reduces the risk of CHD considerably (Kessler, 2012).
So, if you are after one of the most effective exercise modalities of exercise on the planet, HIIT is arguable your smartest choice (Yan, 2017).
Take Home Message
While there is some evidence to suggest that certain genes can impact your risk of both CHD and obesity, it isn’t a death sentence. In fact, in both cases, the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle has the potential to attenuate this risk completely.
So, what are you waiting for? Take the first steps and start integrating a healthy lifestyle today – your body will thank you for it.
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Assessing Interactions Among Social, Behavioral, and Genetic Factors in Health; Hernandez LM, Blazer DG, editors. Genes, Behavior, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006. 3, Genetics and Health.
Dai, Xuming, et al. “Genetics of coronary artery disease and myocardial infarction.” World journal of cardiology 8.1 (2016): 1.
Varghese, Tina, et al. “Physical activity in the prevention of coronary heart disease: implications for the clinician.” Heart 102.12 (2016): 904-909.
Kochar, Jinesh, J. Michael Gaziano, and Luc Djoussé. “Dietary Factors and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease.” Aging and Disease 2.2 (2011): 149.
Herrera, Blanca M., and Cecilia M. Lindgren. “The genetics of obesity.” Current diabetes reports 10.6 (2010): 498-505.
Singh, Shavinder, et al. “Prevalence and association of physical activity with obesity: an urban, community-based, cross-sectional study.” Indian journal of community medicine: official publication of Indian Association of Preventive & Social Medicine 40.2 (2015): 103.
Makris, Angela, and Gary D. Foster. “Dietary approaches to the treatment of obesity.” Psychiatric Clinics 34.4 (2011): 813-827.
Skelly, Lauren E., et al. “High-intensity interval exercise induces 24-h energy expenditure similar to traditional endurance exercise despite reduced time commitment.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 39.7 (2014): 845-848.
Wewege, M., et al. “The effects of high‐intensity interval training vs. moderate‐intensity continuous training on body composition in overweight and obese adults: a systematic review and meta‐analysis.” Obesity Reviews 18.6 (2017): 635-646.
Kessler, Holly S., Susan B. Sisson, and Kevin R. Short. “The potential for high-intensity interval training to reduce cardiometabolic disease risk.” Sports medicine 42.6 (2012): 489-509.
Yan, Xu, et al. “The gene SMART study: method, study design, and preliminary findings.” BMC genomics 18.8 (2017): 821.
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