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Exercise Can Change Your DNA—Coffee Can Too!


I’m a fan of LSD, that’s long slow distance, not the drug. I’d rather plod my way through eight miles than push it for two but it may be time to reconsider. New research from Romain Barrès, a triathlete and molecular biologist at the University of Copenhagen, shows that high intensity exercise can actually override genetics, helping you not only build muscle, but break down fat and sugar—and caffeine may have the same effect! After reading about the study on Science Daily I just had to learn more and find out what it really means for us so I gave the study’s senior author, exercise physiologist Juleen Zierath at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, a call.

In the study, participants were subjected to strenuous exercise to the point of exhaustion, which happened after about 20 minutes for most people. After exercising at high intensity, chemical marks on the subjects’ DNA disappeared, causing their muscles to produce particular proteins that break down lipids and glucose. What does this mean for us? Your body becomes a fat burning, sugar-using machine!

This made the researchers wonder, does it need to be high intensity exercise or is low intensity enough to reap the rewards? Participants then exercised at 80 percent of their maximum capacity for 35 minutes, and 40 percent of their maximum capacity for an hour and 10 minutes. Just 35 minutes was enough to see a change in the chemical marks on DNA, and therefore sugar and fat burning, at 80 percent but after a whopping hour and 10 minutes, the 40 percent exertion group experienced no change in the chemical marks on their DNA! What’s more, the researchers then isolated the muscle tissue and exposed it to a caffeine bath and stimulated the tissue electrically and what do you know, the DNA markers disappeared just as they did with intense exercise!

So what does this really mean for those of us who want to optimize our workouts and burn some serious fat and sugar? No, it doesn’t mean you should forgo your morning run for a cup of coffee but it does mean you should probably work a little harder during that run! According to Dr. Zierath, most people work out at about 70 percent of their maximum capacity (meaning you can still chat with your running partner) but if we exert ourselves just 10 percent more, to 80 percent, (where it becomes difficult to say more than a few words) we can, “remodel the muscle to metabolize sugar and fat.” She recommends sticking with your low intensity workouts, but adding a few training sessions with 30 minutes of high intensity exercise into your weekly routine, ideally every 48 to 72 hours in order to boost the presence of the sugar and fat burning proteins.

What do you think? Will you be changing your cardio routine? Tell us in the comments below. Personally, I'll be short adding intervals a few times a week to see if I notice a difference.

As an editor at SHAPE I have the chance to learn about the healthiest ways to cook, eat, and live from all sorts of experts but I’m also a single girl living in NYC with a busy schedule, active social life, and chocolate cravings. I’m here to share what works for me—and where I need a little help from you.


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