“Have you eaten anything in the last hour or so?” I shake my head. “How about liquid, have you drank anything?” The man asking the questions is a rep from a DNA testing company, the same man I’d seen no less than an hour earlier giving a speech at The Body Power Expo, praising the virtues of DNA testing, and how it could hold the key to unlocking our inner potential. “I had a coffee around twenty minutes ago” I reply, the taste still lingering in my mouth. “You’d better wait a few minutes then," he replied, "the caffeine can screw up the results, and we don't want that." Indeed.
I wait around ten minutes or so before he returns with a small black box, which, while initially impressive, he then opens to reveal little more than a small plastic bag, inside of which is the kit Ill be using to gather my DNA. “Just scrape the inside of your mouth with the swab for a few seconds and then pop it in the sample jar. Easy as that.” He hands me the kit, and I dutifully rub the swab around my inner mouth before popping it in the plastic test tube provided. “Thats it. Done. We’ll have your results in around 4 to 6 weeks.”
DNA testing is no new phenomena. Its been available for elite athletes for over half a decade. The high street consumer variety, the like of which I completed, has been available for around half that time. Many predicted it would lead to a new 'craze' in the fitness industry; however early adoption rates have not seen growth, the like of which most companies chasing hard line profits would best enjoy. The problem, it would seem, is that many still see the tests as being largely ineffective at predicting success in athletes or, more specifically, in identifying areas that an athlete might focus on dependant on their genetic strengths. DNA it would seem, is not destiny, and that’s precisely the issue that I ran in to.
Having opened my results, I immediately focused on the fitness side of my sequencing. To my surprise, the test found that I was “Highly Gifted” with regards to “Performance Durability” and only “Gifted” in terms of the genes that contributed towards “Strength”. Performance Durability, I would later read, translates in more basic terms; from activities and sports that lean towards endurance, whereas 'strength' is more concerned with the genes that attribute towards explosive power-based forms of fitness. As a high school sprinter, and current Olympic Weightlifter I found this mildly amusing. Not least because while I've always enjoyed and achieved success in sports that have demanded the use of fast twitch muscle fibres. Ironically I’ve struggled in sports where endurance was the key indicator for success. Now I’m not saying that the test itself is wrong (though several anecdotal reports have shown individuals receiving differing results from different companies). I’m merely pointing out that even with a test to determine what an athlete might have a natural aptitude for (between endurance sports and more power focused ones) would an athlete then change their athletic discipline based on the results? In my own case, I don't see myself dropping the weights to start running marathons every other week, but then again maybe I should.
In terms of accuracy, its important to understand that these tests don't account for the huge number of genes that make up our DNA profile. Lest we forget, the human body has over 10 million gene variants, and most consumer tests look at a fraction of that number. In this particular case, its a mere 70, and their’s is billed as the most comprehensive on the market.
Moving from the Fitness profile to Nutrition, I learn that I’m a carrier of the gene variant that makes me liable to put on weight easily. Again, while I’m not at liberty to call the test a bust, putting on weight is something I’ve struggled to do my entire life, even at points when Ive been trying to. Pretending for minute that that wasn't the case, the question of whether knowing I have such a propensity would impact on my decision to instigate behavioural change begins to rear its head. Its a question that Theresa Marteau, a professor of Human Behaviour at Cambridge University has started to explore, and the initial results suggest, long term, knowing you are at risk of obesity on a genetic level does not appear to change behaviour.
Dr Giles Yeo, director of genomics at the Medical Research Council’s Metabolic Diseases Unit at the University of Cambridge draws a rather neat line under the issues and problems inherent in DNA testing. “At the moment, there is simply not enough research to be so prescriptive” says Yeo. He has also gone on to say that these companies are “not telling you lies when they give you recommendations” they are using peer reviewed work. After all, the issues come from the ways in which they are interpreting the data, largely from studies that are massively underpowered in terms of the numbers of people looked at. “These studies,” continues Yeo, “give you risk at a population level and it is seldom, if at all, transferable to the individual as a diagnostic which is what these companies are trying to do.”
My DNA profiling experience cost me £250 and, while I found the results interesting, they were ultimately more amusing than useful. I haven’t changed the way in which I train based on the them, and I don’t see myself doing so in the future. With that in mind, my advice would be to save your money. Better yet, spend it on a years gym membership. I know which one is more likely to make the majority of the population more healthy.