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A few months ago, I swabbed the inside of my cheek, put the swab in a prepaid envelope and mailed it off to myDNA, a genetics company in Melbourne, Australia. There, a team extracted and analyzed my genes to answer a pressing question: Could I make working out suck less?
Direct-to-consumer genetic-testing companies, like the new-to-Canada myDNA or the popular 23andMe, are undeniably enticing to people who seek birth relatives or are simply curious about where their ancestors came from. But it’s not just family connection that these tests have on offer—it’s also medical detection. Are you built for long-distance running? Are you prone to certain disorders? Most consumer tests currently on the market work by looking at some of the specific variants in genes that can indicate risks for disease or even fitness capabilities. The keyword here is “some”—it’s now well established in the scientific community that most traits are not the result of one gene but thousands, says Dr. Guillaume Paré, director of the genetic and molecular epidemiology laboratory at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ont. “Testing only one gene, even if this gene is indeed linked to a trait, is therefore missing the whole story,” he cautions. It’s one reason an international group of geneticists published a statement in a 2015 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine cautioning against the use of DNA testing for predicting fitness potential.
Yet a look at some of my genes is still appealing to me, even if it’s not entirely predictive of my abilities. As an Apple Watch-wearing, food-diary-app-using millennial, I viewed this test as another way to quantify my physical health. And if something in my genetic makeup could potentially make it easier for me to obtain the toned arms of Jessica Biel, I wanted to know.
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MyDNA isolates seven genes that have the most scientific research behind them as to their effects on muscle power, strength, endurance and flexibility. Your personal genotype—how these genes are expressed—is then assessed to predict your stamina, injury risk and recovery time. Turns out I’m regular for stamina and at a higher risk for injury and I have a faster-than-average recovery time. I send my results to fitness expert Brent Bishop, who takes this information into account to devise a workout plan. We meet up at Ten X Toronto gym and start with an extra-long warm-up because my Interleukin 6 gene, responsible for muscle recovery, is not a go-getter. My ACTN3 gene, which produces a protein that improves muscle power, is surprisingly well expressed, and I power through single-arm snatches and rows, but when Bishop asks me to do sprints on the Technogym Skillmill—a sleek self-propelled treadmill—I balk. It’s my PPARGC1A gene, I explain. My aerobic fitness is not naturally high.
Between complaints, I begin to wonder: Is my genetic makeup an excuse for how I perform? Or can I use my new knowledge to make the most of what I have—or even change my genetic blueprint? Healthy habits can offset genetic risks, says Paré. “Where we need more research is how to tailor habits to best fit our genetic profile.” I leave my workout exhausted, but when Bishop calls to check in the next day, I realize I’m sore but not painfully so. The extra stretching helped—and that’s a start.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE SENDING OFF YOUR DNA
In Canada, the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act prevents anyone (like your employer or insurance companies) from making you disclose the results of genetic testing. Make sure to ask: Where is my DNA being stored? How will my identity be protected? Can I request that my DNA and associated data be destroyed at any time?
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of ELLE Canada.