How exactly does exercise work to make us healthier

Exercise makes us more fit and reduces our risk for illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. But just how, from start to finish, exercise translates into a healthier life remains perplexing.

New research informs us the answer probably lays within our DNA. A study published December 2014 in Epigenetics finds that exercise changes the shape and functioning of our genes. The human genome is astonishingly complex and dynamic, with genes constantly turning on or off, depending on what biochemical signals they receive from the body. When genes are turned on, proteins are released that prompt physiological responses elsewhere in the body.

Scientists now know that certain genes become active or quieter as a result of exercise. Gene expression was noticeably increased or changed in thousands of the exercised muscle-cell genes that the researchers studied. Many of the changes related to exercise were on the portions of the genome known as enhancers.  These enhancers augment the genes’ expression of proteins.  This relates to hundreds of health-related proteins being expressed throughout the body. These proteins keep blood pressure and insulin low, and strength and endurance high.

We now better understand one more step in the complex process that makes exercise so good for us. “Through endurance training — a lifestyle change that is easily available for most people and doesn’t cost much money,” lead researcher Dr. Lindholm said, “we can induce changes that affect how we use our genes and, through that, get healthier and more functional muscles that ultimately improve our quality of life.”