Kids Love Dr. Barton

Sports Genetics

by Dr. Douglas Barton, M.D., Pediatrician 12/01/2008

Can a test tell me what if my kid can excel in sports?
            I enjoy exercise. Many who have read other articles I’ve written know that I enjoy a good long run, I feel good after a good weight-lifting session and, in my time, I played a pretty mean game of volleyball (I’m old now, you know).  In addition to this, as a physician, I believe exercise is extraordinarily important. 
            Having said that, I’m not a big sports fan.  I never watch professional sports.  I love the Summer Olympics (what’s a bobsled?), but at times am still really frustrated by what I see.  I believe that the money going through sports and the fans expectations of athletes has truly ruined all that is beautiful about athletic endeavor.  My daughter participates in gymnastics, but she does so because it’s fun, not to win prizes.  My son dropped out of sports and it’s all right with me.
            With that in mind, it was with quite a bit of interest that I read about genetic testing for sports potential ( It seems that a company in Colorado (the fittest state in the nation) is participating in testing for athletic prowess.  According to what I’ve read, they charge a fee that is larger than any of my fees to obtain sample for genetic analysis of ONE gene, the ACTN3 gene.  I am unable to find a test for any other genes on their web-site.  The argument goes that if a subject has a certain combination of the ACTN3 gene types, he or she may be more suited for endurance activity.  If a subject has a different combination, they may be more suited for strength and speed type sports.  A third type is identified that may indicate a combination of skills.
            While there are many problems with this approach, some ethical/moral, some medical and some scientific, let me just address the scientific question.  If one is truly interested in this kind of analysis, even a brief (which I just did in about fifteen minutes) review of the available scientific evidence demonstrates at least 185 different genes that in some way influence athletic prowess ( Moreover, in the original studies of the ACTN3 gene, there were many athletes who did not fit their correct category genetically.  That is sprinters with endurance type genes and endurance athletes with strength type genes.  These original tests were done in elite level athletes demonstrating that even with the “wrong” ACTN3 type genes, one can excel in one’s sport of choice.
            There is no question in my mind that genetics plays a huge role in whether one becomes an athletic superstar or not (I never would have made an Olympic level athlete no matter how hard I trained).  There is also no question that passion for the game, excellent training and excellent nutrition all come into play as well.  The results of a single genetic test are just not enough to tell you what kind of sport your child is suited for, let alone whether or not he or she will be any good at it.  At this point in time, genetic testing for sports aptitude has a VERY low return on investment potential.
            So, let your kids PLAY sports.  Take the pressure off.  Let them have fun.  Their sports are not your ticket to fame or fortune.  If your kids happen to excel at a sport, let them go with it.  Keep the pressure low key, have fun with them, don’t over train them to premature exhaustion or burnout.  Let them develop a lifetime love of physical activity.



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