Exercise is essential for maintaining physical and mental health, but it can be difficult to find the motivation to get up and get moving. However, recent research suggests that our genetics may influence our ability to find motivation for exercise. This article will explore the latest findings on the genetic factors that may play a role in our motivation to exercise and how we can use this knowledge to improve our own fitness habits.
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Why doesn’t everyone like to exercise?
Let’s face it. Some people don’t like to exercise, and no matter how many Instagram inspiration posts they see, they aren’t going to head to the gym.
A study in the journal Behavioral Brain Research paints a fascinating picture of why some people are more motivated to exercise. The study looked at the dopaminergic system to see how people’s genetic variants could alter the ‘reinforcing value’ of exercise.
Most people in the US are too sedentary, and 90% of Americans don’t meet the recommendations for physical activity. The US Department of Health and Human Services claims that adults need 2 1/2 hours/week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and two days/week of strength training.[ref]
According to the researchers, one factor in adhering to the guidelines is “the reinforcing value of exercise relative to a competing alternative behavior”. In other words, would you rather exercise or do something else…
The study examined 178 adults (average age 27) who wore activity trackers. The participants also rated how much they liked different exercises and sedentary activities.
The researchers investigated 23 different genetic variants – ranging from FTO (obesity-related variants) to ACE (muscle/heart disease) to dopamine variants.
Exercise Motivation Genotype Report:
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The study I mentioned above found four genetic variants related to exercise reinforcement and intensity.
The first variant is related to motivation to exercise. It is a dopamine receptor variant in the ANKK1 gene that affects the dopamine 2 receptor. This variant is well studied in relation to addiction, weight gain, ADHD, and suicide risk (read the whole article on dopamine receptor variants).
The results showed the dopamine-related variant was involved in the reinforcement value for exercise — or, in other words, whether people felt that the reward of exercising was greater than doing other non-physical activities such as watching TV, playing video games, etc.
ANKK1 gene: encodes dopamine receptor 2
Check your genetic data for rs1800497 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):
- A/A: (DRD2*A1/A1) lower reinforcement value for exercise
- A/G: (DRD2*A1/A2) normal reinforcement value for exercise
- G/G: (DRD2*A2/A2) typical, most common
Members: Your genotype for rs1800497 is —.
The other three genetic variants were linked with the intensity of exercise.
CNR1 gene: encodes a cannabinoid receptor variant that has also been associated in other studies with exercise tolerance. Cannabinoid receptors are involved in pain tolerance.
Check your genetic data for rs6454672 (23andMe v4 only):
- C/C: normal exercise tolerance
- C/T: normal exercise tolerance
- T/T: greater tolerance for higher-intensity exercise
Members: Your genotype for rs6454672 is —.
LEPR gene: encodes the leptin receptor. Leptin is a hormone that signals satiety and energy homeostasis.
Check your genetic data for rs12405556 (23andMe v5; AncestryDNA):
- T/T: greater tolerance for exercise intensity
- G/T: greater tolerance for exercise intensity
- G/G: less tolerance for exercise intensity
Members: Your genotype for rs12405556 is —.
GABRG3 gene: encodes a GABA receptor associated with exercise tolerance in previous studies. It is thought to decrease pain signaling.
Check your genetic data for rs8036270 (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):
- G/G: greater tolerance for exercise intensity
- A/G: greater tolerance for exercise intensity
- A/A: less tolerance for exercise intensity
Members: Your genotype for rs8036270 is —.
Perhaps understanding the reason why you don’t want to exercise will motivate you to get beyond that and start working out more :-)
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2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines | Health.Gov. https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/dietary-guidelines/previous-dietary-guidelines/2015. Accessed 4 Jan. 2023.
Flack, Kyle, et al. “Genetic Variations in the Dopamine Reward System Influence Exercise Reinforcement and Tolerance for Exercise Intensity.” Behavioural Brain Research, vol. 375, Dec. 2019, p. 112148. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2019.112148.
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and also an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.