When it comes to sports and fitness, are some simply more genetically gifted than others? If you’re born with “average” genetics can you adjust your lifestyle and train harder to build what you may lack up for genetically? Are there natural ways to improve athletic performance?

These are just a few of the questions we had when it came to thinking about athletic performance from a more molecular level. We reached out to Divya Vats, MD., Geneticist, at the Kaiser Permanente Panorama City Medical Center, who helped answer some of our tough questions.

What are some genetic advantages one might have that would help someone excel in fitness?

  1. We know that the state of some specific genes can play a role because two people can follow the exact same fitness regimen and one can excel and one can show very little results. Certain genetic changes can confer advantages in metabolism which can enhance athletic performance. See this link for more detail on the topic.
  2. Genetic information can help us to better understand what is going on in the body and know how to respond with specific exercises or nutrition in order to maximize results.
  3. Certain genetic changes provide more flexibility: joints are hypermobile and hyper-flexible. Therefore, these individuals are at increased risk for fractures and injuries, leading to reduced participation in sports and other activities secondary to injuries and pain.

If you’re born with “average” genetics, can you train your body to achieve the same level as someone who was born genetically gifted?

Genetics account for approximately 50-60 percent of individual athletic and physical performance skills. The remaining 40-50 percent are a result of environmental factors such as diet, training, and lifestyle. Training can be a big component but keep in mind there are individuals who are genetically gifted with genes that alter metabolism, have a better muscle to fat ratio or more muscle mass.

What are some ways to naturally improve athletic performance? How can one improve their genetic makeup? Is this possible?

There are many ways to improve athletic performance, and many have to do with lifestyle and training habits, which includes appropriate diet, sleep, exercise. Remember, your mental and physical habits are important—and while these tips can help one’s physical ability and overall fitness “shape,” they will not change the genetic makeup you are born with—simply put some people must work much harder than others. However, the following tips can aid in athletic response for anyone looking to improve their athletic performance:

1. Change your diet. The way you exercise should inform the way you eat. The harder you work your body, the more protein you need, because protein helps increase anabolic tissue growth—or the building of muscle. Limit your simple carbohydrates, because they break down into sugar and do not sustain long-term energy—which is why you may feel a sudden boost in energy after eating, but you will also crash. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, seeds, fruits, and dark leafy vegetables break down slower and help sustain energy.

2. Rotate strength training with cardio. For example, if you are working out 5 days a week, focus 3 days on strength and 2 days on cardio. It’s also important to switch up your routine to avoid plateaus from muscle memory. Cardio helps optimize the body’s circulatory system and keep the body in balance when combined with strength training, which helps with faster recovery.

3. Stay hydrated. Water keeps every part of your body working properly. It helps your body flush wastes and stay at the right temperature. It can help prevent kidney stones and constipation. You lose water throughout the day—through your breath, sweat, urine, and bowel movements. If you live in a hot climate, you lose even more fluid. You need to replace this lost fluid to stay healthy, especially if you are focused on increasing your athletic performance. If you don’t get enough water, you could become dehydrated. If you get very dehydrated, your body no longer has enough fluid to get blood to your organs. This can be dangerous.

When it comes to the three main body types, ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph, would you suggest each has an upper advantage in different types of sports/physical fitness? What might these be?

One can leverage it. Let me explain: it’s hard to put limits on advantage because with proper training, diet, dedication, and circumstance, anything is possible. But certain body types may come with a natural advantage to specific activities:

  • Ectomorphs, or those who are lean and long and don’t build a lot of muscle have good builds for endurance sports such as marathon running, soccer and swimming.
  • Endomorphs are more pear-shaped, and can carry fat on their upper body, arms, and thighs, which can help increase muscle mass more easily. Powerlifting and rugby are good athletic options for this body style.
  • Mesomorphs are muscular and well-built, have a naturally high metabolism and responsive muscle cells, and typically low body fat, allowing for a well-defined muscular body. They also gain and lose weight easily, making them easily adaptable to any sport or fitness activity.

Responses provided by Divya Vats, MD., Geneticist, at the Kaiser Permanente Panorama City Medical Center.