Building a foundation of health and fitness involves two very influential factors: work ethic and genetics. Genetics carry a hefty responsibility, but it’s important to understand the things about your body that you can change and what you can’t. We’d like to blame every setback on our DNA, but ultimately the results are up to us.
Our physical makeup is about a 50-50 shot, half is predisposed in our DNA and the other half can be improved through lifestyle changes, according to Men’s Journal. These predispositions break down to certain hormones being more or less prevalent in the body.
If you want to compare apples to apples, we are all universally the same fruit. As human beings we share 99% of genetic similarities basic to our survival. We are almost exactly the same in the way in that we all produce the same proteins responsible for fundamental functions like metabolism, immune function, reproduction, digestion, and respiration, according to Stronger By Science. We look different on the outside because we have different amounts of these genes and different gene expressions, but our bodies are all built with the same capability to live and live abundantly.
Fat mass and obesity-associated protein, or FTO, has been a constant culprit for both female and male weight gain for the past few years. The theory is that people with this gene encoded in their DNA have a higher chance of developing obesity. FTO doesn’t determine how much fat is stored in the body, it determines your tendency towards food cravings and hunger throughout the day. It works hand in hand with a hormone called ghrelin, the hunger hormone. More ghrelin equals more urge to snack. But ultimately, it’s all about food intake regulation, a process completely under your control. Sure, you might dream of donuts more than the next person, but whether or not that donut ends up being eaten isn’t up to your genes. According to InBodyUSA, multiple studies have shown that people with the FTO gene responded just as well to weight loss efforts as those without it. In the end, calorie intake was the most influential factor for all subjects.
While FTO can’t always be the culprit for your more fatty areas, there is a genetic component to it. We do have control over how much fat is stored, but not where. Your genes determine if you store more fat around the hips and thighs or in your upper body, according to InBodyUSA. Factors like gender, age and family history can come into play. Especially around your midsection. Central adiposity is the tendency for fat to store around the abdominal area, and is typically inherited. FTO has no connection to this process either. This doesn’t mean your cursed to have a gut, but that you might have to work on that area a little harder than others. This explains why people come in all shapes and sizes, none of which are quintessentially “better” than others no matter how much we’d like to criticize ourselves. Each body shape has its own strengths and weaknesses.
There are three primary body shapes: mesomorphs, endomorphs, and ectomorphs, according to LiveStrong. Mesomorphs are naturally more muscular with average height and pretty even weight distribution. This body type tends to build muscle faster than others. Endomorphs have a rounder appearance and more aptitude for fat distribution in the mid section. Ectomorphs are tall and naturally lean, and will struggle more to put on weight. The good news - ALL body shapes transform significantly with weight training.
While we’re on the topic of your midsection, let’s talk six-packs. It may come as a surprise that the predominance of your ab muscles is almost entirely genetic. Like most things, the appearance of this area can be vastly improved with some hard work, but it would be unfair to say that everyone starts at the same place. It’s all about tendons, which attach muscle to bone and other muscles, according to Men’s Health. If you’re tendons are naturally longer, there are more noticeable gaps between the ab muscles. Shorter means smaller gaps. This explains the symmetrical “washboard” abs in some people, but not others. The same concept can be applied all over your body. Shorter tendons in the calf, means larger looking calf muscles, etc. This isn’t to say that shorter is better, but that there is an explanation for why your body natural looks the way it does, which allows you to have realistic expectations of how much you can improve it.
Another theory worth a second look is the “set point theory”. Set point claims that there is a specific weight range that your body sticks to, despite your constant efforts, according to InBodyUSA. While your body may balance out at a certain weight consistently within a certain lifestyle, that doesn’t mean that it won’t do the exact same thing with a different lifestyle. Set point clinical trial studies show that this genetic weight range can be significantly altered with diet and environmental changes. So if you’ve ever heard someone in your life say that their body is stuck in a certain shape or form, keep in mind that there’s always more to the story.
Your childhood can also give you a few hints when it comes to your physiological makeup. If you were an active adolescent, playing sports and participating in lots of physical activity, studies show that your development is different from someone with a more sedentary past. Because childhood sports were going on during a period of growth spurt, asymmetric muscle dominance can form, according to the Radiological Society of North America. For example, if you played soccer as a kid, even if you don’t as an adult, you probably have an advantage building muscle in your legs. A baseball player could build up shoulder and arm strength faster, you get the point. So take a look at how you grew up and find your strengths.
Unfortunately, we can’t see our genetic code in the mirror, but there is a way to take a closer look. There are multiple genetic tests you can do to get a more scientific perspective on your body. A DEXA scan can measure everything from your bone and muscle density, and fat percentage, as well as your ideal caloric intake. You can also mail in blood, stool, and saliva samples to various companies that will analyze your genetic markers and hormones. Depending on what exactly you’re looking for, you can choose from sites like Muhdo, FitnessGenes, Thriva, etc.
With all of this in mind, it’s clear that genetics can have a hand in natural strength, muscle size, lung capacity, flexibility, and endurance to a certain extent, according to VeryWellFit. They can help your body respond better or worse to certain training methods and diet changes. On the other hand, genetics play a very little role in balance, agility, reaction time and accuracy. Those skills are ultimately determined by your willingness to work. So don’t count yourself out just because your body is built differently than everyone else’s. Focus on improving your weaknesses and mastering your strengths. Depending on your mentality, your personal genetic traits can be your downfall or your secret weapon. Take responsibility for the role you can play in your fitness journey and don’t settle for what’s comfortable. Combine genetics with a little discipline and there’s nothing you can’t achieve.
Take it from me
Nailing down my genetic traits has been a really exciting part of my fitness journey. Instead of looking for my weaknesses, I think of it in the way that I’m looking for the things that make me uniquely me. These little limitations and challenges make me special, and make my body completely my own.
I played soccer growing up and all my extra weight loved to gather in my thighs. No matter how healthy I ate or how active I was, my legs wanted to be full and strong. So I stopped chasing the elegant, giraffe legs in the magazines and realized what was beautiful about my body type. I’m short with only so many places to distribute weight, but I do have the advantage of creating real shape where I want it. The more time I spent in the gym, the more I could pick out the muscles that grew the fastest and the slowest. My shoulders and legs responded so well to weight training, but my biceps lagged behind. My abs refused to show, but my back was more developed than ever.
Once I really understood my body’s preferences, I could mold my training around that and work harder on the things that demanded it. With time and experience, I’ve learned a more physiologically accurate image of myself and what it takes to achieve my goals.