Is the key to the ideal workout written in our DNA?
Not every fitness regime will have the same impact on all types of bodies, but just how personal does a training program need to be?
Some biotechnology companies claim the key to the perfect workout is written in your genes.
Genetic testing is already used to help people learn more about their ancestry, health and, infamously, their baby's paternity. Now genetic scientists have developed tests to push the boundaries of fitness.
“Genes contain the blueprints that play a very important role in defining who we are – our eye colour, the likelihood of baldness, how well we can play a certain sport. Now we have the ability to use that information to our best advantage,” said Graeme Smith, the chief scientific officer of Mygene, a biotechnology company in Melbourne.
Although scientists are still split on the usefulness of sporting genetics, several companies have developed kits which with only a few cheek swabs, claim to tell you exactly which activities – from soccer to yoga – will best match your genetic make-up.
Mygene's kit, which costs from $195, also claims to indicate how long you should rest between activities and how much time you need to warm up to avoid injury.
Armed with this level of detail, a personal trainer could design a workout exclusively to your DNA, said Smith.
“Genetics alone won't make us a champion athlete – environment is also important – but if I train in a way that complements my genetic make-up, my ability to excel is much greater,” he said.
The sales pitch is there, but do these kits work? Todd Howard, a personal trainer with Snap Fitness, believes genetic sports tests can be useful for anyone wanting to get better results in the gym, particularly those whose fitness has reached a plateau.
“Fifty per cent of clients who have been going to a gym aren't getting results. It's not as easy as putting someone on a treadmill,” said Howard, who has used the Mygene kit with several of his clients.
“You could be prescribing a lot of cardio training but not getting anywhere because their body might not be made to do cardio. Knowing your client's genetic make-up takes personal training to the next level.”
One Snap Fitness client who believes she has benefited by unlocking her genetic potential is Jenny Smerdon, 60, who was told her she would never walk again after suffering three heart attacks and two strokes in a short time.
She defied this through “sheer pig-headedness” and is not only walking again but has returned to the gym. However, she found she was getting out of breath quickly and struggled to achieve her running goals.
Ms Smerdon said genetic tests revealed her muscles were better suited to short and powerful energy bursts, rather than long-distance training, and she believes that adjusting her workout helped change her body shape and improved her overall fitness.
“I'm back up to running 11 kilometres now. I did the Bridge to Brisbane run this year in 60 minutes,” she said.
But positive anecdotes did not tell the whole story, said Daniel MacArthur, a geneticist with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Britain. He argues that sports tests are a waste of money – at least for now.
“It's not just a case of finding the right genes, we also need to understand how these genes work with each other and the environment,” said Dr MacArthur, who co-wrote an early study on the link between genes and muscle types.
“There's no convincing evidence that these tests help ordinary people looking to change their exercise or diet regimes. That's not to say that people haven't benefited, but it's unlikely that the benefit came from the genetic test,” he said.
Dr MacArthur suggested that simply changing an exercise routine could trigger results.
He said he believed that for now, tests such as these were mostly interesting for finding out more about yourself and the science of genetics. And if you wanted to make sure your workout was personalised, he would recommend you spend the money on a good personal trainer who would predict your muscle type using traditional sprinting and jumping tests.
“But the science is advancing all the time. I anticipate in five or 10 years' time these tests will be more worthwhile,” he said.