15 Incredible Genetic Facts about Sports, Fitness & Athletic performance

Do fitness genes or sports genes really exist? Is there something as a champion DNA? Is it nature or nurture or both? Why can’t we all run like Usain Bolt or swim like Michael Phelps?  is it just because we don’t train like them or  do they have fitness genes that are best suited for their sport? It turns out that there is a lot more to human physical performance then just dedicated training, which though absolutely essential, is not the only determining factor.

Here are a few incredible facts about physical fitness genes influencing human performance:

Fitness genes fact 1: 32 members of the Kalenjin tribe in Kenya ran a marathon faster than 2 hours and 10 minutes in October 2011, compared to 17 men who achieved the same feat in the whole of American history! 

Fitness genes fact 2: Michael Phelps’ lower body is proportionate with that of someone 5’5″ while his upper body is proportionate with that of a 6’5″ individual. Great swimmers have disproportionate arms length and wingspan compared to the average person. You cannot train for that!

Fitness genes fact 3: The serving arms of tennis players have forearm bones a quarter of an inch longer than the forearm bones of the other arm. This is true of non-athletes as well. We tend to have more bone in the arm we write with, simply because we use it more, so the bone becomes stronger and capable of supporting more muscle. This is an example of body adapting to routine. But we are all not made the same, the adaptive response of some individuals is much better than others, thanks to their fitness genes.

Fitness genes fact 4: 17% of men in America who are taller than seven feet and between 20 and 40 years of age are playing in the NBA.

Fitness genes fact 5: Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta became the “greatest endurance athlete” of his generation in part because of a mutation in his erythropoietin receptor (EPOR) gene which helps produce excessive amounts of red blood cells. His family was found to carry this gene. People whose ancestors have lived in higher altitude environment under less oxygen have developed adaptions such as larger lung size, greater RBC count to compensate for lower oxygen in the environment.

Fitness genes fact 6: Less than one in 20,000 women in the general population have a Y chromosome but are insensitive to testosterone and thus develop as females. Over the course of testing at five Olympics, however, an average of 1 in every 421 female competitors had a Y chromosome. This is not just fitness genes but a whole chromosome!

Fitness genes fact 7: The guys with a lot of fast-twitch fibers that can contract their muscles very fast have much more risk of a hamstring injury than those with a lot more slow-twitch fibers. The former get injured far more often. The most popular of all fitness genes, ACTN3 influences your muscle fiber type.

Fitness genes fact 8: Donald Thomas had barely 8 months of training when he won a gold at the Osaka World Championships in ’07 beating Stefan Holm, despite Holm’s extensive training. Later on, scientists identified one of the key reasons for his dramatic success – a 10.5” uncharacteristically long Achilles tendon. The longer and stiffer the tendon, the more elastic energy it can store, and when stretched, rocket its owner into air.

Fitness genes fact 9: Croatian Water Polo players’ arm’s length increase more than an inch, 5 times more than that of the Croatian general population.

Fitness genes fact 10: Slow kids cannot be fast adults. Speed is partially determined by the proportion of slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers in the body. Fast-twitch muscles give you more speed while slow-twitch muscles give you more endurance. It’s possible to train fast-twitch muscles to have more endurance, but you can’t get slow-twitch muscles to act like fast-twitch muscles.

Fitness genes fact 11: Redheads have a higher tolerance for certain types of pain. The same gene mutation is responsible for both phenomena. In the extreme scenario, there are individuals who are completely insensitive to pain, even when they fracture their bones, they don’t feel any pain!!

Fitness genes fact 12: 10% of people with European ancestry have a gene mutation that allows them to inject testosterone and not test positive in a dope test!!

Fitness genes fact 13: Only two players in the NBA in 2010-11 didn’t have unusually large wingspans. Humans typically have a height to wingspan ratio of 1:1, it’s 1:1.063 among NBA players.

Fitness genes fact 14: Heat dissipation is critical for endurance running as the Central Nervous System forces a shutdown or stop of effort as body’s core temperature passes 104∘ F. Marathoner Paula Radcliffe typically fails during summer marathons (2004, 2008 Olympics) because her smaller skin area (relative to her volume) means her body cannot dissipate heat as efficiently as shorter runners.

Fitness genes fact 15: The more the proportion of fast-twitch fibers a person has, the lower their capacity to burn fat – one possible reason sprint and power athletes tend to be bulkier than endurance runners. Among the 6 DNA variants that influence heft, the most critical is the FTO gene.

Fitness genes fact 16: A discussion of sports genetics is incomplete without the mention of Myostatin- the double muscle gene– Carriers of this gene mutation do not produce myostatin which is present in majority of us. Myostatin breaks down muscle in the human body, hence, absence of myostatin leads to net accumulation of muscles over time. People (and animals) with myostatin mutations are highly muscular.

In the realm of sports doping, genetics is expected to play a dominant role as more gene modification techniques are introduced. Gene doping is now officially listed on the world antidoping authority website.

Watch this space for more facts. We will update this list regularly!

Also read about the Top 5 Fitness Genetic Testing companies here

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