Last year my friend Sarah got pregnant and immediately kicked into mother mode. She switched to only organic products, researched natural childbirth, began training with a hypno-birth program, and started a regimen of vitamin supplements to ensure the baby’s physical, mental, and intellectual health. This kid was going to have the best possible head start.
After 10 weeks, when her app told her the baby was the size of a grape, Sarah placed her hand on her abdomen and announced, “The baby is very active.” She swore she could feel it doing somersaults in her womb. In the third trimester, I myself could feel that her child was always on the move.
Josh is now almost a year old. He has hardly stopped moving since the night he was born and craned his little neck to get a better look at us all. When Sarah, Josh, and I go out to lunch, it’s pretty easy to see that he’s more active than his peers. Research shows that 97% of adults engage in less than the minimum recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day, but something tells me this boy will constantly engage in physical exercise. For Josh, being motivated to move may be in his genes.
“What makes Booth’s findings so interesting is that if we recognize children who don’t have genetic predisposition to be active, we can connect them with exercise programs at an age young enough to make physical fitness a habit. We can change the way kids use their brains—and how their brains develop—just by engaging them in, and building a taste for, physical activity.” According to research from the University of Missouri published last year in American Journal of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, evidence suggests that specific genetic traits play a role in making people more or less inclined to exercise and engage in physical movement. Led by Frank Booth, a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, the team studied how willingly rats ran on wheels in their cages over a six-day period. Then the researchers bred the top 26 runners together and the bottom 26 runners together. By the end of 10 breeding generations, the scientists found that the runner rats were 10 times as likely to choose to run than the rats from the “lazy” gene pool. Through further research Booth’s team discovered 36 genes that may play a role in causing the rats to be predisposed to one way of life or the other.
This year Booth is back with new research published online in the Journal of Physiology that proves rats with a genetic predisposition toward exercise are more mentally mature than rats from the lazy line. Extending the results of the previous study, the researchers examined and compared the brains of the runner and lazy rats. They discovered that the runner rats had more mature neuron cells; the neural pathways of their brains developed more quickly.
Any of us can be born genetically predisposed to lots of things, including obesity, disease, talents, abilities, intelligence, temperament, emotional disorders—even Achoo Syndrome, which makes you sneeze when suddenly exposed to light! Many of the genetic traits we’re born with are inescapable, but Booth’s research suggests that the genes for physical activity are a little more flexible. Booth noted that the “lazy” rats were able to overcome their genetic predisposition if he gave them a running wheel very early in life. “Most complex behaviors are never determined 100 percent by genetics or 100 percent by environment, “ he says. “How the brain is used may make pathways in the brain that might be more fixed for life.”
What makes Booth’s findings so interesting is that if we recognize children who don’t have genetic predisposition to be active, we can connect them with exercise programs at an age young enough to make physical fitness a habit. We can change the way kids use their brains—and how their brains develop—just by engaging them in, and building a taste for, physical activity. This is good news, especially considering that childhood obesity has more than doubled in kids and quadrupled in teens in the past 30 years.
In the end, exercise isn’t just about weight or physical fitness; it’s about maximizing the brain power in every child. Josh is now a flurry of stand up/sit down/crawl activity. If we encourage physical fitness habits today, 20 years from now he and his peers could reduce the staggering obesity rate and also naturally improve their immunity to heart disease, brain degeneration, and other preventable side effects of aging so they can remain healthier to a later age.