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Exercise Programs DNA to Fight Disease and Improve Health

17 August 2021
Giulio Prisco


University of Copenhagen scientists have suggested that the beneficial effects of physical exercise may in part result from changes to the structure of our DNA. These structural changes are referred to as "epigenetic."

While it is widely known that regular physical exercise decreases the risk of virtually all chronic illnesses, the mechanisms at play are not fully known. This research shed light on the deep mechanisms through which exercise leads to better health.

"Our findings provide a mechanism for the known beneficial effects of exercise," says Professor Romain Barrès in a press release issued by University of Copenhagen. "By connecting each enhancer with a gene, we further provide a list of direct targets that could mediate this effect."

A study is published in Molecular Metabolism. The scientists report evidence that exercise rewires the enhancers in regions of our DNA that are known to be associated with the risk to develop disease. Enhancers are sections of our DNA that regulate which genes are switched on or off, when, and in which tissue.

To show that exercise remodels the activity of gene enhancers in skeletal muscle, the scientists recruited healthy young men and put them through a six-week endurance exercise program. The scientists collected a biopsy of the thigh muscle of the participants before and after the exercise intervention and found changes in the structure of DNA in enhancers that have been already associated with human disease.

According to the scientists, these research results show how exercise remodels DNA in skeletal muscle, so that new signals are established to keep the body healthy. The findings suggest that enhancers remodeled after exercise training may participate in disease prevention, especially of cardiovascular, renal, and cognitive disorders, by regulating transcription of enhancer connected genes.

The disease categories, that these research results link, reprogrammed enhancers that have all previously been associated with exercise. For instance, exercise training is robustly correlated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, improved renal functions, better cognitive performance, and higher academic achievement.

"Our data provides evidence of a functional link between epigenetic rewiring of enhancers to control their activity after exercise training and the modulation of disease risk in humans," adds Assistant Professor Kristine Williams.

“By providing insight into the mechanisms that may mediate the positive effects of exercise on cardiovascular function, platelet biology, cognitive performance, and renal function,” reads the conclusion of the study, “our study constitutes a powerful resource for the identification of key factors involved in the beneficial effects of endurance training on human health.”

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