The “Bad Genes” Trap: Genetics, Fitness, and Overcoming Excuses

We all know the song and dance of “bad genes.” Most of us can sing a few bars—I know I can.

Bad genes gave me bone spurs on my shoulders. Bad genes gave me bad teeth. Bad genes gave me a left dominant artery system around my heart. Bad genes are why I am the way I am, and bad genes are why I don’t even try.

Here’s where I get in trouble. To me, “bad genes” sounds like the old idea of being “big boned,” but based in somewhat better science. It’s a good excuse not to even try to do things, or not to stick with a program long enough to get results. I know because it’s been my excuse more times than one.



Well, in a surprise turn of events, it turns out that environment may help to shape heredity, if not trump it altogether. It’s a point for nurture over nature, so to speak. We all know that exercise and what we eat and drink can affect us physically, but the degree to which it does is what is becoming more clear. Just one round of physical activity can have an effect on your genes as well as the fit of your jeans. As you become more physically active, your muscle fiber changes, fat is burned, and you reprogram your genes to a healthier metabolism—at least according to this article in the prestigious New York Times.

Of course, articles written by reporters (even at the Old Gray Lady) will contain a certain amount of hype. That’s how they get their byline published. This does, however, buttress the theory of allostasis, the idea that your entire body is in a motion of flux; small and large things affect it, and the best you can achieve is a balance. Perfection is unattainable and the enemy of the good—progress is always incremental and sometimes can’t be noticed right away, but it’s there. Stick with biking, walking, tennis, spelunking, or paragliding long enough and you will get proficient at it. Your body will adapt to the demands of an activity repeated, and if it’s beneficial, you will see gradual improvement in the performance of that activity.

I have a friend who’s a writer and blogger and one of the most active, busy people I know. She works hard and plays hard, including a daily exercise routine. We were talking the other day and she mentioned she’d done some yoga, which gave me a bit of a pause—not just that she made time for it, but that she’d found somewhere to do it. She’s been in a wheelchair for over a decade, but now she’s doing adaptive yoga at Mind Body Solutions in Minnetonka. She also told me about Project Walk, where she recently stood upright for the first time since she was fourteen years old.

The reality is there are activities and programs to fit almost anyone, and that the “bad genes” excuse is really a state of mind. Low-impact aerobics, water aerobics, pool walking, mall walking, biking, hiking, yoga, power yoga, adaptive yoga, martial arts, tai chi, softball, and even Calvinball have been adapted for folks with all kinds of different physical challenges. A quick search on the web or a call to the YMCA or local park can probably hook you up or at least point you in the right direction.

What’s the bottom line, you ask? It’s pretty simple. Do something no matter the state you’re in; no matter what your present physical condition and/or excuse, you will see some kind of benefit, regardless of your genes. And you can influence those genes that have been keeping you grounded, even if the influence is slight. Any activity in moderation starts those small adaptations that help you feel better. A little more blood flow, a bit more air, and a little bit of fatigue builds a little bit more muscle.

The decision to get up and get moving is not about your genes. That decision is all your own.

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