DNAFit: Is it worth investing in genetic analysis to get better results from your fitness efforts?

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As I continue to look for ways to improve my health, particularly through honing my fitness and nutrition, I was keen to see if a more scientific and analytical approach could help me. And so I ordered a DNAFit kit, where they analyse your DNA and then report back about how my genetics might influence my approach to fitness and nutrition.

In this article I’m going to focus on the results and value I got from the DNAFit Fitness report and what impact it has on my training so that you can see if it’s worth the investment for yourself. (A follow up article focused on the nutrition report and its impact is coming soon.)

Key Takeaways

  • It’s definitely a fun and fascinating way to look at how you should hone your fitness routines, using knowledge about your own genetic makeup.
  • The high-level results were not a surprise but they were very satisfying because they backed up a lot of what I knew anyway through my own journey through fitness (such as a mix of exercise works well for me, I recover pretty quickly, I can push myself quite far aerobically, etc.).
  • It becomes more fascinating when you drill down into the individual gene variants to understand more about how the body works, and how your own genes for each function influences your different capabilities (fast twitch muscles for speed, ability to process toxins, how inflammatory my body might be, etc.).
  • It’s great that the results are online and you can drill down into them, but at the same time it got quite fiddly having to click on each gene to get more information, and the DNAFit site had a particular bug that meant it kept losing my profile when I clicked between results pages so I couldn’t see my data. Very frustrating and time consuming.
  • There is a report you can download, and while useful, it didn’t have ALL the information in (such as the detailed information on the genetic variants, or the suggested strengthening exercises for those prone to injuries) so you still had to keep digging around the site which added to the frustration. That said, it was still worth it to get the depth of information that is available.
  • Has it changed what I do? I feel that the mix of exercise I currently do is well suited to my body which the results confirmed, and it’s good to know about my recovery time. I will be more cautious given the higher risk than average of injury (and having already broken my foot last year). For me, the most useful aspect has probably been the post-exercise nutrition plan, which is something I’ve been wanting to figure out. Now I feel I have some specific data/measures (although I still have to turn the nutrient amounts into an actual food plan!).

What is the process with DNAFit?

The idea with DNAFit is that they take a sample of your DNA (from a cheek swab you do yourself and send in) and then they analyse it to look for your personal genetic variants that impact the way your genes function, and the amino acids that are needed to make the proteins you require for your body to develop and function.

After about 10 days, you get an email with a link to your online report and infographic (you can download mine here to give an example of what you get with the combined fitness and nutrition report). In the online results, you can see the high level data about your overall response or genetic predisposition in four key areas of fitness:

  • Power / endurance response;
  • Aerobic potential;
  • Post-exercise recovery and nutritional recommendations;
  • Risk of injury.

But where it gets really interesting is where you can drill down into the specific gene variants you have and what effect this has for your fitness in each of these areas (more on that below).

Some geeky facts

We each have over 20,000 different genes and each gene has hundreds or thousands of nucleotide molecules, which come in four varieties represented by letters (A, T, C, G). The combination of these molecules then specify to your body which amino acid is needed to make up the various proteins needed to develop and function.

On average, people are 99.5% genetically identical, but in some sequences these nucleotides might come in different forms, which will then change how that gene functions.

DNAFit looks at variants – known as allele’s – that have been researched and can indicate a “strength of association” with their DNAFit markers that can indicate certain traits, such as how you respond to certain types of exercise, your efficiency at using oxygen, and how you recover from exertion.

It’s worth saying that DNAFit published a peer-reviewed study in the ‘biology of sport’ evaluating the effectiveness of this approach, where they found that matching your training to your genetics led to almost three times the rate of improvement over mismatched training.

 

The key metrics in the DNAFit Fitness report

Power/endurance response 

This can show you whether your body responds best to more power-based activities (such as springing, power lifting, track cycling) or more endurance-based activities (such as long-distance running or cycling), which can influence the type of training you might enjoy more or get better results from.

My results showed me being almost equally balanced between power (56%) and endurance (44%) with the recommendation that I mix those types of activities into my workouts, which I tend to do anyway. Nothing too exciting here until I drilled down to the genes themselves the genotype variations I have to understand how this profile had been decided for me.

Reading about the effect those variations can have (two dots means a strong association, one is a medium association and a dash is no association), gave more interesting information. For example, in my power profile I was rather pleased to see that I have the variant (CC) for the gene ACTN3 that is associated with fast twitch muscles that works well for sprinting. With the ACE gene, which is apparently the most researched gene in relation to sporting performance, my variant (ID) suggests the mix of power and endurance-based training.

dnafit_power-fitness-table
‘Power’ fitness table

Aerobic potential: How well we use oxygen during exercise

The VO2 Max measure is a well-known measure of how far we can push our bodies with hard exercise until we can no longer use more oxygen. If you can increase your VO2 Max then you stand a chance of improving performance such as endurance. Your genes can determine how likely you are to be able to improve that VO2 Max number through training as some people are better able than others (although it obviously can’t tell you what your actual VO2 Max is – that’s something I’m keen to have measured soon).

Mine was a medium response to aerobic trainability, meaning that I have some potential to improve my VO2 Max with exercise while other variations were ranked as great potential or little potential. This was based on genes such as the C-Reactive Protein (CRP) which rises in response to inflammation in the body. My variant (AA) is associated with lower levels of CRP and a better VO2max response to training as well as faster recovery times, where as the GG variant might lead to higher levels of inflammation/CRP after strenuous exercise and require a longer rest period between sessions.

Again, the recommendation here was to cross-train by consistently including both power and endurance activities.

Post-exercise recovery

How quickly do you recover from full-on exercise? Knowing how well your body recovers can guide whether you can handle a short break or require a longer break in between workouts, and if you skimp on the rest it can compromise future workouts. Again, I was pleased to see I have a fast recovery time (ranges through very slow, slow, medium, fast, very fast).

This was based on gene variations that are good at removing toxins and free radicals (GSTT1) and immune support and recovery (IL6, IL6R). Although I was missing the GSTM1 gene which has a similar detoxing function, which is probably why I wasn’t ranked as very fast recovery, but other genes make up for this and you can eat food such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) to promote the enzyme activity.

The Interleukin-6 and receptor genes for the immune response to exercise for me suggested I might have higher levels of inflammation (again, which may have brought my recovery down from very fast to fast), and so anti-inflammatory nutrition could help aid recovery (the details of which they provide in the next section). This was then balanced with the C-Reactive Protein which is the body’s response to inflammation which can help the body to recover from inflammatory responses.

Recovery nutrition

As a result of my genetic make-up, and the way my body is able to handle inflammation, toxins, and free radicals – basically anything from oxidative stress – DNAFit were able to put together a recommended nutrition plan to support proper post-exercise recovery. This is something I haven’t focused enough on but do realise I need to do a better job of, so I found this incredibly promising. Now I just have to turn those numbers into an actual food plan, which I haven’t yet figured out.

dnafit-nutrition-for-post-exercise-recovery

Injury risk 

It turns out I have a higher than average risk of a sports-related soft tissue injury (which ranges across very low, low, medium, high, very high). My “high” ranking is concerning (especially as I’m already cautious after breaking my foot last year) so I will take extra care not to (purposefully) do any stupid moves or stunts that have a higher risk. DNAFit also recommend three strengthening exercises for the key genetic risk areas: achilles, patella and shoulder strengthening, which I will be checking out.

Background information about the individual genes

It took me a while to notice that on some genes, but not all, you can click to find out more about the individual gene and read a discussion of what it triggers in your body in response to exercise and what findings have been in research to date. I look forward to DNAFit building up this database of knowledge for us to access and learn more.

It would also be good if the gene information were presented in a more digestible format, to save us from having to click through on each one. That would make it easier to collate the findings and start to figure out the implications for your own health and training. Although the downloadable report summarised the gene variants I have for certain things, you couldn’t drill down into the full table without going online.

DNAFit also shows (online, not in the downloadable report) how common your own response is compared with their sample of (currently) 17,000 DNAFit users.

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Would I recommend a genetic DNAFit test for fitness?

Absolutely! I’d recommend a genetic test to anyone interested in fitness and how they might improve their performance.

If you’re just starting in fitness, it could be a useful indicator of the types of exercise you should try, and the recovery time you should have in between, as well as your post-workout nutritional needs. If you’re a seasoned fitness pro, or somewhere in between, it is reassuring to see some of the results, and there are likely to be areas where you can adapt your current workouts or nutrition to make better use of your own genetic make up.

The high level results are fun as is the infographic, but the good stuff is in all the supporting information about your individual gene variations if you can find the time to read through it all.

DNAFit is one option amongst a few suppliers, that also include 23andMe or FitnessGenes.

What might be interesting for a future experiment is to take a test from a different supplier and compare results to see how consistent they are… But that’s for another blog.

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