Ever since childhood, we’ve had dentists tell us the same thing. Brush your teeth and floss regularly, and you’ll enjoy a great smile for years.
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But kids and adults alike still head to the dental clinic for procedures that may have nothing to do with failing to practice good oral hygiene. They may need braces, for instance, to fix poorly aligned teeth. And that’s a condition which is at least partly down to genetics.
Looking at the bigger picture, our overall fitness works in the same way. From our family doctors to news sites and social media, countless sources will tell us that it’s important to exercise and eat healthily. But there are many factors we can’t control.
Much like tooth alignment, we may grow up with existing conditions or unfavorable circumstances concerning health and fitness. What are the factors to be aware of, and what can be done to effect change?
The role of genes
When we think of diversity, we usually associate it with skin color, gender orientation, or cultural background. But underlying all these traits is a mechanism that operates at the molecular level: our genes.
Genetic factors make us far more diverse than what might be suggested by things our eyes can perceive. Two people of the same gender and ethnicity, coming from the same region, may respond differently to physical activity. Even within families, you might see one child tend towards obesity while their siblings have a more regular phenotype.
You may be familiar with genetically-inherited disorders, but even in most of the population, a diverse gene pool translates to different outcomes due to metabolism and body signals. People with no inherited disability or disease may still have a sluggish base metabolic rate. They might feel hungry more frequently or take longer to feel sated.
How the environment shapes you
That said, human beings don’t have the course of their lives set in stone by heredity. We’re influenced by nature, which is hard-coded into our genes, but we’re more significantly shaped by nurture.
Nurture is essentially the environment in which we grow and learn. And that environment is heavily defined by physical factors. A child who grew up in the city is less likely to have enjoyed numerous opportunities to explore the outdoors than one who was raised in the countryside.
The environment also dictates access to other things that contribute to your fitness. For instance, proximity to a local market makes it easier for residents to buy affordable, fresh produce. In turn, that comes to constitute a bigger portion of their diets, ensuring proper nutrition. However, the less fortunate in terms of location won’t have convenient access to such markets, which adversely affects their health and fitness.
The physical aspect isn’t the only environmental factor at play. Nurture, of course, has a human element—our upbringing matters.
Your parents and other family members’ attitudes towards fitness will have shaped your own behaviors as you were growing up. Social peers, mentors, and other leadership figures can also exert a positive or negative influence.
Without realizing it, we carry those behaviors with us as we grow into adulthood. Thus, even if your family situation has changed over the years, you might still bear the hallmarks of an environment that was (or wasn’t) conducive to good fitness.
By understanding these different factors and how they can interact and have a varying impact on our unique individual fitness, we can begin to respond effectively. And two vital takeaways will help you make a positive change in this area.
The first is an acknowledgment of what you can’t control. You can’t blame genetics for having inherited a slow metabolism. And you shouldn’t feel guilty about having developed sedentary habits if you grew up living with a family of couch potatoes. It can relieve you of any shame you might feel over a currently poor fitness level.
But what matters, even more, is the second lesson: you can take ownership of the few things that are truly under your control. As adults, we are free to make decisions that determine our social influences or change the environment we live in. We can show that we’re serious about getting fit and staying in shape by committing to better behaviors.
Due to factors beyond your control, perhaps it might not be realistic to set your sights on a sculpted physique or well-defined muscles. But you can eliminate substance abuse, manage stress, and get a good night’s sleep in addition to the recommended level of activity. Focus on working with what you’ve got, and your fitness outcome will inevitably improve.