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.
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.
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.
To create healthy habits, make a plan and stick to it. Also consider these tips from the experts:
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||
|Drink less soda and sugary beverages||
|Eat more fruits and vegetables||
|Opt for whole grains instead of refined grains||
|If you want to:||Try one of these goals:|
|Move more and sit less||
|Increase your aerobic activity||
|Add muscle strengthening to your exercise 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.
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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