The Genetics of Exercising
Dr. Timothy Lightfoot, professor of kinesiology, knows genetics play an important role in physical activity.
- Written by Michele Schevikhoven ’21
- Illustration by Owen Davey
- Oct. 1, 20203 min read
With the Center for Disease Control and Prevention stating that only 53% of Americans are meeting the standard for aerobic physical activity, native Texan Dr. Timothy Lightfoot researches how different genetic makeups affect one’s predisposition to be physically active or inactive. Dr. Lightfoot has 31 years of experience as a university faculty member and has spent 11 years at Texas A&M. He currently holds the Debbie and Mike Hilliard ’73 Endowed Chair of Kinesiology and directs the Sydney & J.L. Huffines Institute for Sports Medicine and Human Performance, which gives him the resources and opportunities to pursue his passion of creating a healthier world.
How do exercise and genetics go hand-in-hand?
Exercise is critical to a healthy lifestyle. I research genetics and biological factors to determine if someone can be born a “couch potato” or a “frantic banana.” Genetics help determine the motivation to be active through brain neurochemistry and drive the capability to be active through changes in the muscle. This drive is partially controlled by unique environmental factors such as diet and toxicant exposure, so what motivates some individuals to exercise might not motivate others.
What kind of diet do I need to stay healthy?
Diet plays a large role in whether someone is physically active or not. Our work shows that diets high in fructose decrease physical activity. Carbohydrates are often the first energy source your body uses, so you should not deprive your body of that critical energy source. You can’t change your genetics, but you can change your diet. People sometimes make dieting more complicated than it needs to be, but just a simple reduction in fats and sugars is a great place to start.
No matter your genetic makeup, being physically active for 30 minutes a day can reduce your morbidity and mortality rate dramatically.
Is there a type of exercise that is best for your health, or is it just activity overall that counts?
If you’re generally inactive, aiming for 150 minutes of activity per week is a good goal. As you become more active, you can delve deeper into what is best for your health. In general, the best type of exercise is the one you’ll keep doing. No matter your genetic makeup, being physically active for 30 minutes a day can reduce your morbidity and mortality rate dramatically. You can start with activities such as gardening, housework or walking outside.
If I am born a “couch potato,” how can I overcome this genetic predisposition?
Overcoming genetic predisposition is not necessarily difficult; you just have to make up your mind to do it. In general, the genetic predisposition toward activity is only about 50%, so there is another 40 to 50% that you determine. While genes play a role in how active you are, your efforts toward being active also play a large role.
Learn More: If you are interested in learning how you can support researchers like Dr. Lightfoot or the Sydney & J.L. Huffines Institute for Sports Medicine and Human Performance, contact Jody Ford ’99 at firstname.lastname@example.org or (979) 847-8655.
About Dr. Timothy Lightfoot
Dr. Timothy Lightfoot received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The University of Louisiana at Monroe and his doctorate from The University of Tennessee. In addition to researching the genetics of physical activity and exercise endurance, his lab also has a unique interest in the human physiological response to unique stressors, such as high G-force exposure, automobile racing and playing music. He used to race cars as a hobby and is passionate about playing the bass guitar, which he does in live settings with a variety of bands.