“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” – Maya Angelou
Ok, so both this post’s title and the lead-in photo are on the sensationalist side. But the point I want to make, right from the get-go, is that DNA is not destiny.
Epigenetic influence, my dear TTP follower, means quite a bit. Not enough to make me (no matter how many years of effective training) an elite sprinter. But enough, though, to make me at least quick and powerful enough to get a free-ride college education playing a “repeat power” sport (American football). And to have a hell of a good time doing so along the way.
Of course there is much more to athleticism than the mere presence/absence of the alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3) protein. That’s just one shard of a bewilderingly complex puzzle. And there’s much, much more to the expression of hypertrophy as a response to muscular stress. In fact it may well be that the presence/absence of the ACTN3 protein has little to nothing to do with hypertrophy. Or it may even be that that the absence of the ACTN3 protein — in an epigenetic environment of serious strength training — enhances hypertrophy. The body, faced with a relentless training stress, has to compensate somehow. If not by a more efficient and elegant design (highly tuned, fast twitch fiber), then maybe by a biologically inefficient bigger motor?
And on the gym lore side of things, we’ve all heard the “all show, no go” characterization. Maybe there’s something to that. I’ve known some pretty massive bodybuilding types in my day who expressed a shockingly dismal amount of explosiveness. The caveat being, though, that they never trained explosively.
It’s interesting to speculate, too, on the psychological side of the equation. Why would a kid, presumably genetically predisposed (at least, physically) to endurance activities, naturally gravitate to speed/power/strength sports? Cultural environment means a lot here, of course (and apparently I have a SNP indicating a greatly elevated susceptibility to novelty seeking — the antithesis to long/slow training). But I was never pushed one way or the other by the adult influences in my life. I was simply encouraged to do whatever it was that I wanted to do. And “long and slow” simply did not appeal to me in any way, shape, or form — even though I was exposed to plenty of those types and activities in my life as well.
It’s also interesting to speculate what kind of athlete I’d been had I known and adopted this information as an 11 year old kid and, because of that, turned my attention to endurance sports. What if I’d trained in that manner with the same intensity that I pursued sprint and repeat power sports?
It’s funny that I just recently (re)posted the picture below, as a “haha, look at the Paleo f(x) diversity” thing. Now, I don’t know what Mark Sisson’s DNA would reveal, but he was a top tier triathlete back in the day, and presumably carries the same ACTN3 knockout SNP as yours truly…
This will be interesting to keep up with over the next several years, as science identifies more “markers of athleticism”. And the fact that entities like 23AndMe exist (and the 3rd party data cruncher sites — Promethease is what I use), should make this process exceedingly fast…in the progression-of-science terms, at least.
In the end though, the process merely tells me that I am part of just 18% of the general population who do not produce the ACTN3 protein in our skeletal muscle. That is clear. What is also clear is that science has no idea if that contributes to performing at anything but an elite level. Even here, there are contradictions. And we have very little information that it affects kids’ performance in the slightest. That I had this particular disadvantage in sprint/power performance may have been overshadowed by a host of other (even yet to be discovered) factors. It’s likely, though, that I’d never suffer the “consequences” of that single genetic limitation accept at an elite/Olympic level. And would that knowledge have even mattered to me as an 11 year-old kid?
I doubt it.
Which brings me to Angelina Jolie’s much publicized decision to undergo a complete double mastectomy in 2013 (her OpEd on the subject, here).
I certainly respect Jolie’s decision (and the underlying factors and fear behind it); I do, however, think that it sends the wrong-minded “genetics is destiny” message to an already undereducated public.
Genetics may in fact be the “bullet”; the gun, however, and the finger on the trigger are all epigenetic influences which are mostly under our control.
A couple of other 30-thousand-foot-view, interesting-to-me take-aways from my results:
- I’m apparently about as lily white as they come: 99.6% northern European, with a heavy dose of Neanderthal (>82% of the population at large). Ok, so I know where the football player gene came from 😉
- I’m at almost at 3x the risk for obesity as the normal schmo. I suppose my year ’round 10% bodyfat proves that epigenetics matters just a bit. 😉
- Having one of the APOE alleles puts me at a slightly elevated risk for post-concussive, long-term brain trauma. I guess Dr. Doug McGuff was correct when he said that the best thing to have ever happened to me was suffering an injury that prevented me from playing professional football.
But that last point is seriously concerning to me. Just last week I had dinner with Amy Moll of Life After Impact. I recounted for her how, in my playing days, I was the one on the field who interpreted signals from the sidelines into defensive schemes. We had a fail-safe defensive that was to be called when the signal caller was unable to relay/interpret those signals (every team has a version of this in the playbook). And aborting to the “fail-safe” defense was not an unusual occurrence. If you’ve ever been “knocked silly” you know what I mean by the temporary inability to make sense of anything. If you’re a fan of the game, have you ever wondered why, at times, there are just out of the blue, completely bungled plays? Sometimes it’s just a legitimately “dropped assignment”; but often the player in question, at the moment, can’t even tell you what team he’s playing.
I know; I’ve been there. And I’m doing everything in my epigenetic power now to mitigate that damage. Which means abiding by my four pillar philosophy.
Because I can’t do a damn thing about my genetic hand, but I sure as hell have plenty to say on the epigenetic side of the coin.
You might also be interested in these older TTP posts related to this subject:
In health, fitness and ancestral wellness –