Jeter, Wambach, Kobe -- is it all in the genes?
Leslie Goldman demystifies and debunks weird and wonderful trends in health and fitness.
When it comes to athletics, I look pretty damned good on paper: 5-foot-11, resting heart rate of 56 bpm, can leg press 150 pounds. But in practice, I'm a hot mess: Deathly afraid of bicycles; can't understand football to save my life; can barely jump high enough to clear an anthill. While I'm interested in all of these things (hence why I write for espnW!), they just don't seem to be in my DNA.
So when I heard about Sports X Factor , an at-home panel of genetic tests used to assess athletes' genetic performance characteristics and risk factors, I wasn't personally tempted; I don't need to pay a laboratory $200 to confirm that my crowning athletic achievement was, and will always be, as Flag Girl No. 5 on my high school Color Guard.
But you espnW readers, are likely far more talented and advanced than I when it comes to sports, and deserve to get the scoop. So, for you, I dialed up Stephen Roth, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology and director of the Functional Genomics Laboratory at the University of Maryland, to ask him about the cheek swab that claims to provide "genetic information for the purpose of making informed decisions about maximizing performance while minimizing risk." For instance, Sports X Factor promises to provide information on muscle fiber type -- if you're a fast-twitch gal, that might explain why your marathon training attempts always end at 8K -- along with genetic markers that may increase the chance of a concussion injury (where you'd want to steer clear of tackle football.)
Roth, who voiced concern over at-home genetic tests for child athletic aptitude at last month's American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting, called out Sports X Factor for focusing on genes with "limited scientific validity." For example, the company claims that a genetic marker known as DI01 provides information about muscle strength; Roth says he only found one paper to support that claim. "That's not enough evidence," he said. He also explained that everyone has both fast and slow twitch muscle fibers in varying proportions, and that the only way to determine percentage is with a muscle biopsy.
But what has Roth far more concerned than readers forfeiting $200 for potentially dubious results is the fact that Sports X Factor measures ApoE, which it has labeled a concussion response gene (meaning if you have a specific genotype, you'll require a longer recovery than others.) "There's very limited evidence for that, but this genotype is strongly associated with Alzheimer's disease, which they don't mention," Roth said. "If you have two copies of this gene, you have an eight-fold increased risk for Alzheimer's disease. Imagine finding that out on your own, without a physician or genetic counselor."
I suggest athletes look instead to what they already know about themselves. Did Abby Wambach place the header to the back of the net in FIFA Women's World Cup semi-finals against France yesterday -- giving our gals the lead and later the W! -- solely because of genetic aptitude? Of course not. There are years of training, coaching, competitiveness, passion, focus, and perseverance playing roles, too.
Shoot or Pass? Pass. If you really want to ID your athletic strengths, spend your $200 on a session with a trainer or sports psychologist.