A little exercise changes DNA expression in fat cells, study finds

Less than two workouts per week can have a measurable impact Photo: Chris lucidtech, Flickr

WASHINGTON, July 10, 2013- Even a small amount of weekly exercise changes the gene expression of fat storing cells, according to a Swedish study published in the July issue of PloS Genetics

Everyone knows that staying active is good for health, but this is the first scientific study to show that exercise affects how the body stores fat at a cellular level. 

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The study included 23 middle-aged men around the age of 35.  All the participants were slightly overweight but otherwise healthy and did not engage in any previous physical activity or exercise. 

For a period of six months, researchers asked subjects to attend spinning and aerobics classes at least three times per week.  While the actual average attendance was 1.8 classes per week, the effect on the expression of fat storing genes was substantial. 

The study looked for changes in the methyl groups in the men’s fat cells.  Methyl groups are molecules found inside genes that affect gene expression, whether genes are activated or deactivated.  The study of gene expression at a cellular and molecular level is known as epigenetics. 

In other words, even though a person’s DNA cannot be altered, through a process known as DNA methylation, genes can be switched on and off. 

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Using technology that analyses 480,000 genome positions, researchers found epigenetic changes in 7,000 of the participants’ genes after six months of exercising, affecting nearly one third of a person’s total genetic makeup.

The study also specifically analyzed the changes in the genes linked to type 2 diabetes and obesity.

“We found changes in those genes too, which suggests that altered DNA methylation as a result of physical activity could be one of the mechanisms of how these genes affect the risk of disease,” says Tina Rönn, associate researcher at Lund University Diabetes Center and lead author of the study. 

While previous studies that have examined how exercise affects the body at a molecular level have focused on the changes in skeletal muscle, this is the first to study molecular changes in fat and fat storage. 

The authors confirmed their findings by performing in-vitro lab tests where they deactivated certain genes and thereby reduced their expression.  As expected, this resulted in changes in how fat cells stored fat. 

“Our study shows the positive effects of exercise, because the epigenetic pattern of genes that affect fat storage in the body changes,” said Charlotte Ling, associate professor at Lund University Diabetes Center and co-author of the study.

While there is a need for more research on how fat cells store fat, the study is good news for people who do not have a lot of time to exercise, showing that a little could go a long way.  The study shows that just taking a long walk in the evening or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can have a positive impact on weight and health.   


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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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