Pounding my way through my high school gym class runs was a particular torture that I can still recall in perfect detail, if I wanted to. Which, believe me, I don’t. They’re etched so deeply into my memory not just because my gym teacher used to chase me around the track throwing footballs at my head to keep me moving but also because they were hot, painful, embarrassing and… deathly. I say deathly because first, I lived in a tiny farming town and our high school was downwind from an animal processing plant that smelled literally like death (on hot days the peculiar stench would make us retch). And second because I was absolutely sure that I was going to die. My lungs were nigh to bursting, my heart was clawing its way out of my chest like a horror movie gone awry, my limbs were shaky and at any minute I figured I was going to shuffle off this mortal coil.
You know what makes you unpopular in high school? Acting like a weenie in gym class. You what makes it worse? Quoting Shakespeare while you whine. So unbeknownst to my peers I started running in the mornings before school. I’d run from my house straight into the comforting embrace of the Rocky Mountains (the bonus of living in a tiny mountain farming town) where no one but the predatory mountain lions could hear my asthmatic gasping and watch me try to do a farmer blow and instead just smear snot down my entire shirt. And while I learned to love the peace of watching the sun rise over the summit and the rhythm of exercise, I did not learn to love running. I still hated every second of it. Moreover, I never got any better at it.
After watching the ease with which some of my classmates loped around the track, still with enough breath to gossip about why I was wearing 17 different types of spider jewelry in gym class (Charlotte’s web – get it??), I finally decided that running was genuinely more difficult for me than it was for most people. I figured someday, hopefully not during an autopsy, they’d discover I had a hole in my heart or only one lung or something else that would explain this unfairness. And science did not let me down!
Behold the discovery of the Wuss Gene! (my nomenclature, you’re welcome).
As reported by the New York Times, in a landmark 2010 study scientists looked for a genetic answer to the question of why some people respond to endurance exercise so well and others don’t. “Some lucky men and women take up jogging, for example, and quickly become much more aerobically fit. Others complete the same program and develop little if any additional endurance.” The researchers examined the muscle tissue of “several groups of volunteers who had completed 6 to 20 weeks of endurance training. They found that about 30 variations in how genes were expressed had a significant effect on how fit people became.” Eventually they found certain patterns of genetic material that indicated someone would be a “low responder” to aerobic exercise and – naturally – developed a test so people can find out for sure whether or not they (or their kid) is the next Lance Armstrong.
Dr. James Timmons, one of the researchers and founder of XRGenetics, says, “The idea [of the genetic test] is to help people to understand why they might be progressing more slowly in an exercise program than their training partners are.”
My first thought, upon hearing the news, was regret that it had not been available to show my gym teacher that I really was trying and that I really did just suck. And me being me, I immediately wanted to take the test! While it wouldn’t change anything at least I would know why I’ve been running for years (I’ve learned to enjoy it more now that the pressure of the Presidential! Fitness! Test! is off) and yet could never pull off a feat like my friend M did this past weekend.
[Warning: Random story ahead: The day before the race, one of his neighbors ended up with an extra bib number for the notoriously competitive Twin Cities Marathon and asked M if he wanted it. "Sure," he said, despite the fact that his longest run ever was "10-12 miles, maybe" months ago. Despite the fact that people train for months (years!) to run a marathon and he didn't know a tempo run from tempo shorts. Despite the fact that he'd never done a race, ever, except one piddly 5K several years ago. Then he asked me for advice. (I know, that alone is a measure of his boundless optimism.) I gave him a few gels, told him to buy a stick of bodyglide, wear compression shorts and put bandaids over his nipples. (I may not remember to tell you to put your chip timer on your shoe but at least your nips won't be worn down to ouchie nubbins! Priorities!)
And you know what? Not only did he run the whole darn thing, he finished in just over 3.5 hours with an average pace of 8 min/mile. Fifteen minutes less and he could have qualified for Boston. Ridiculous! Even when I trained for a marathon I never paced that fast. And can you imagine what he could do if he actually trained? (Which he doesn't want to do because he ran the marathon on a lark and while it was awesome and all, he has other stuff he'd rather do.) Headdesk.]
However, the scientists caution that the test is only reliable for predicting how well people will be able to increase their endurance, as measured by their VO2 max. It can’t tell you how aerobic exercise might lessen your depression, lower your blood pressure, increase your bone density or otherwise make you a happier, healthier human being – and there are way more benefits to regular exercise than just increased endurance. Best case scenario, according to Dr. Timmons, is that “if you are a “low” responder to endurance exercise, you should concentrate on resistance training or otherwise refocus your training.” He adds, “What we hope is that the test and report will encourage people to keep exercising who might otherwise have quit when running or swimming didn’t make them more fit.” Worst case scenario, it’ll make people who test positive give up on exercise all together wondering why they should fight against their genetic destiny. Or, heaven help me, what if the test says my genes are stellar and the only reason I’m not on a podium somewhere is because of an abundance of teenage angst?!
There’s also one more factor to consider: epigenetics. This (seriously exciting) new science is “the study of heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence.” In layman’s terms: genes are kind of like light switches and while you may have the Wuss Gene (sequence) whether or how much it is turned on is up to a host of outside factors – ones that you mainly control. The original paper concluded “that the gene profile they’d uncovered accounted for at least 23 percent of the variation in how people responded to endurance training, which, in genetic terms, is a hefty contribution.” But that leaves a whopping 77% that could be attributed to anything from a healthy diet to adequate sleep to how often you run in smoggy air.
In the end most of us do not have the genetic potential of a Lance Armstrong or Michael Phelps. We know that, test or no test. That’s why super athletes are so special. But we can all do the best with what we have. I’d be willing to bet (Monopoly) money that I’m a “low responder.” Life experience has taught me that. But while my best isn’t a marathon on a whim it’s certainly better than if I’d stayed on the couch and ate jelly beans. Plus the test is $318 and I can figure out I’m a slow runner for the price of a pair of running shoes.
Admit it: Do you want to know what your genes say about your athletic ability? If you were offered the test for free would you take it? If you had to guess, would you say you are a low responder or a high responder to endurance sports? Anyone else feel like this kind of explains their entire fitness experience??
Also: Did you know they used to have “aerobics competitions”?! And you thought that was just what the territorial ladies in your step class did! Seriously though, if you can get past the fact these guys are wearing spandex lederhosen and doing jazz hands, there is some amazing athletic talent!