Epigenetics: taking greater control of your health and wellness

Can we change our genes – or at least how they’re utilized in the body – through diet and exercise?

When illness or disease strikes or we become unhappy with our appearance, we tend to sigh and say things like: “I inherited this from my mom’s side of the family,” “I am just like my dad,” or “It’s genetic.”

There is some truth to these statements. The collection of genes that you have from your mom and dad is called a genome. Your genome functions like a blueprint for your body that you cannot change. It can heavily influence the development of many diseases such as cancer2,3,4, diabetes5 and obesity6. However, factors that are within your control, such as diet and lifestyle, can change the way that these genes are utilized in the body, a process known as gene expression. This is analogous to two houses that have been built from the same blueprint and are structurally identical but appear to be different because of variations in siding and landscaping. 

The changes that diet and lifestyle make to gene expression are termed epigenetic, which means “above the genome.”1 Some epigenetic changes can be passed onto children, which means that your diet and lifestyle can impact the next generation.1

How do diet and lifestyle alter gene expression?

When you eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, your body can change how much specific genes are expressed in two primary ways: 1) by altering how the genome is packaged inside the cell and 2) by placing chemical tags onto specific genes in the genome. When a region of the genome is more folded or scrunched up, the genes are not utilized by the body.1 Likewise, different chemical tags placed on specific genes can actually trigger the genes to be expressed more or can “turn them off” completely. These chemical tags are created by breaking down the food that we eat, which makes a healthy diet an important complement to any exercise program.

What kind of exercise and diet should you be eating to alter gene expression patterns?

First of all, you should always consult a health care professional before beginning a new exercise program to ensure that you are exercising safely. Once you determine what intensity of exercise is appropriate for your body, you may want to consider scientific findings to tailor your program to meet your specific goals. 

Strength training (weightlifting) has been shown to increase fat-free mass and insulin sensitivity, while high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to improve cellular metabolism.8 But in case that sounds a bit intimidating, rest assured that even less intense levels of exercise are proven to have huge health benefits. For example, a 30-minute moderate intensity ride on a stationary bike can elicit epigenetic change that increases the number of cancer-fighting immune cells in the body.

It’s even been shown that people who are fighting breast cancer benefit from a program of brisk treadmill walking for six months (150 minutes per week) to increase the expression of tumor suppression genes.9 Additionally, animal studies have shown that treadmill running increases cognitive function,8 and this likely affects humans in a similar manner.  

While exercise creates an important stimulus to your body to initiate epigenetic change, this is not possible without a diet that also supports genetic change – namely, by being able to supply chemical tags and fuel processes within the cell that make these changes possible. While you should consult a health professional for advice specific to your needs, it has been shown that consuming adequate amounts of the following minerals is especially important for fueling epigenetic change: iron, zinc, magnesium, manganese, calcium, selenium, chromium and copper.11 Specific foods that are great supporters of epigenetic changes include garlic, broccoli, caffeic acid, citrus fruits, apples, soybeans, tea, grapes, tomatoes, turmeric, cinnamon and cashew nuts.10

While none of us can change the genes that our parents gave to us, we can improve the way our bodies use genes through epigenetic modifications, which is possible through a healthy diet and exercise.


  1. Woeffel, JR et al. Precision physical therapy: exercise, the epigenome, and the heritability of environmentally modified traits. Physical Therapy. 2018;98:946-954.
  2. Lange et al. Early onset prostate cancer has a significant genetic component. The Prostate. 2011; 72(2) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/pros.21414
  3. Antoniou, AC and Easton, DF. Models of genetic susceptibility to breast cancer. Oncogene. 2006; 25: 5898-5905. 
  4. Brennan, P et al. Genetics of lung-cancer susceptibility. The Lancet Oncology. 2011; 12(4): 399-408.
  5. Ali O. Genetics of type 2 diabetes. World Journal of Diabetes. 2013; 4(4): 114-123. 
  6. Choquet, H and Meyre, D. Genetics of obesity: what have we learned? Current Genomics. 2011; 12(3): 169-179. 
  7. Zimmer et al. Impact of exercise on pro inflammatory cytokine levels and epigenetic modulations of tumor-competitive lymphocytes in non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients – randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Haematology. 2014;93(6): 527-532.
  8. Rea, IM. Towards ageing well: use it or lose it: exercise, epigenetics and cognition. Biogerontology. 2017; 18: 679-691.
  9. Zeng et al. Physical activity and breast cancer survival: an epigenetic link through reduced methylation of a tumor suppressor gene L3MBTL1. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. 2012; 133: 127-135.
  10. Link et al. Cancer chemoprevention by dietary polyphenols; promising roles for epigenetics. Biochemical Pharmacology. 2010.
  11. Wessels, I. Epigenetics and minerals: an overview. 2017. In Patel, V, Preedy, V (eds.), Handbook of nutrition, diet and epigenetics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31143-2_48-1

Are you starting an exercise program but have previously been hindered by pain or injuries? Let the DMU Clinic help:

Make an appointment at the DMU Clinic for an evaluation. Our physical therapists have advanced training in helping you optimize movement so that you can be active, take control of your own health and wellness and prevent injury. Call 515-271-1717 to schedule an appointment.