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How your behavior impacts your genes
By Mayo Clinic Staff in DNA

How your behavior impacts your genes
How your behavior impacts your genes

As genetic testing becomes more widely available, more people than ever are learning about their genes. Some people find that their genetic test results inspire them to make positive, healthy behavior changes. Research shows that healthy behaviors, such as regularly exercising and maintaining a healthy weight, bring a multitude of health benefits. Evolving science also suggests that these lifestyle choices appear to positively affect how your genes behave. No matter your genetic risk factors, age, weight or current health status, it's never too late to create healthier habits and set yourself up for a healthier life over the long term.

Why your lifestyle choices matter

Your genes influence many aspects of your health, from how much you weigh to your risk of certain diseases. But your DNA sequence is only one part of the picture. Your environment and the choices you make about your lifestyle can alter how your genes behave — without actually changing your genetic makeup — through the epigenome. The epigenome consists of various chemical compounds that attach to your DNA and tell your genes what to do.

For example, factors such as diet, physical activity, stress and toxin exposures can cause changes to the epigenome that turn certain genes "on" or "off." These changes may increase your risk of certain diseases. But changes to the epigenome aren't necessarily permanent. The epigenome can continue to change throughout your lifetime, and a healthy lifestyle may help reverse unfavorable changes. In fact, lifestyle choices seem to be more important for your overall health than your genetic makeup.

Take the impact of fitness, for example: Physical activity has been shown to reduce the influence of genetic risk factors for obesity. In adults who have a common obesity-linked gene profile, active adults have a 30 percent lower risk of being obese than those with the same gene profile who aren't active.

Much research is underway to help us better understand the epigenome and how it affects human health. Fortunately, what we do know appears to reinforce the benefits of healthy habits that include eating well, getting regular exercise and managing stress.

How habits are formed

No single choice you make about food or exercise is likely to dramatically impact your health or your gene activity. But, over time, your choices and behaviors add up as you form habits. A habit is when you make the same choice over and over again without having to think about it. Exactly how this happens isn't known. But most researchers agree that habits — whether "good" or "bad" — are learned gradually over time as you repeat rewarding behaviors.

As you go about your daily life, your brain stores information about your surroundings, your actions or behaviors, and whether you receive a reward for a behavior. When you encounter the same situation, choose the same behavior and receive the same reward again and again, a habit forms. Once a habit forms, you no longer have to think about how to respond when you encounter that situation. You do the behavior automatically, whether or not you still find it rewarding.

This is why old habits are often hard to break. It's also why new habits take time and effort to form. But don't be discouraged. Use what's known about habit formation to create new, healthier habits that add up to a healthier you.

Creating -- and maintaining -- healthy habits

To create healthy habits, make a plan and stick to it. Also consider these tips from the experts:

  • Identify your motivations. Dig deep and identify exactly why weight loss is important to you. Getting motivated by your own needs and wishes — as opposed to external rewards — makes it easier to maintain habits over the long haul.
  • Choose a simple, achievable goal. There's no need to make broad, sweeping changes. You'll have more success if you make one small change at a time.
  • Make a plan. Decide when and where you'll take action toward your goal, and do it every day. Research suggests that it's not enough to just repeat a behavior. It's also important to repeat the behavior in the same context or situation.
  • Address barriers to change. Identify the people, situations or triggers that might derail your efforts. In your plan, include strategies for how you'll handle those barriers if and when they arise.
  • Track your success. Keeping a record helps you stay accountable and put your accomplishments front and center. For example, depending on your goal, you might weigh yourself regularly and keep a record of your weight or track your food choices in a food diary. You might use a pedometer to track your steps or keep a log of your exercise sessions.
  • Stick with it. At first, you may have to work hard to stay on track with your new goal. But it gets easier. Some research shows that it takes about 10 weeks for a new habit to become automatic. With consistency, your new, healthy habit will take root.

Smart goal setting

Your lifestyle is determined in large part by the choices you make about food and physical activity. If healthy eating and regular physical activity aren't a routine part of your life, focus your efforts there first.

Following are some examples of diet- and exercise-related goals to help get you thinking. Choose or adapt one of these, or come up with a goal of your own.

If you want to: Try one of these goals:
Change your relationship to food
  • Use a smartphone app to track what you eat and help you make healthier choices.
  • Eat mindfully, slowing down and using all of your senses to savor your food.
  • Challenge negative thought patterns by changing your self-talk and letting go of unrealistic expectations.
Drink less soda and sugary beverages
  • Start the day with an unsweetened coffee instead of a vanilla latte.
  • At lunch, drink water with lemon instead of soda.
  • With dinner, choose a smaller, 6- or 12-oz. can of soda instead of a larger, 20-oz. bottle of soda.
Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • For your weekday lunches, include a salad.
  • As an afternoon snack, grab a fresh fruit or vegetable instead of a processed food.
  • At dinner, fill half of your plate with vegetables.
  • For dessert, eat whole fruit instead of cookies, ice cream or cake.
Opt for whole grains instead of refined grains
  • For lunch, make a sandwich with 100 percent whole-wheat bread instead of white bread.
  • As a dinner side, twice a week, include brown rice instead of white rice.
  • At the grocery store, choose foods that have whole grains listed as the first ingredient.
Physical activity
If you want to: Try one of these goals:
Move more and sit less
  • Walk for 10 minutes over your lunch break.
  • Use a pedometer to track and increase your daily steps.
  • Try a standing desk at work, starting with 30 minutes a day.
Increase your aerobic activity
  • Find an exercise partner to walk or jog with before work, twice a week.
  • Sign up for a new activity, class or walk/run event.
  • Walk around the block every evening after dinner.
Add muscle strengthening to your exercise program
  • On Tuesdays and Thursdays before work, do 30 minutes of weightlifting.
  • Add a few sets of body weight exercises, such as pushups and squats, to the end of your jogging sessions.
  • Meet with a personal trainer to help you create and stick to an individualized weightlifting program.

To help support weight loss and minimize your risk of disease, you may also want to set goals around improving your sleep, managing your stress, drinking alcohol in moderation and building a support network.

Stick to it

New habits take time to form, so consistency is key. Use what you know about your genes to help you carefully consider your motivations and goals. Then, make a plan and stick to it. You'll be well on your way to creating healthier habits and, ultimately, a healthier life.

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