My bureau chief has puzzled me for years. He eats and drinks whatever he wants, barely exercises, and yet never gains an ounce. It’s all the more irksome because he’s older than me, and I don’t share his propensity to look the same all the time. But then I take heart when I see this lady I know who’s always jogging by the sea on Carter Road but never seems to lose any weight at all. She has tried every conceivable mix of training. She goes uphill. She walks and runs. She only runs. She only walks. She carries weights and walks. She sweats buckets every single day. Yet, if you met her, you’d think she has never exercised a day in her life.
So when Dr Saleem Mohammed, founder of Xcode Life Sciences, a biotech startup that decodes individual genetic types, told me every human is geared for a specific kind of physical exercise, I was intrigued. Equally, I was sceptical that this was going to be yet another of those height, weight and body mass index (BMI)-related programmes that tell you things you already know, and which proceed to recommend that you do the same things you are already doing.
Mohammed didn’t say much except that Chennai-based Xcode aims to do two things: Assess an individual’s genetic profile through a DNA sample (saliva), and use proprietary software to chart out athletic, metabolic, muscular, and dietary profiles. That information is then used to come up with a tailor-made exercise-and-diet regimen that in theory should deliver better results than just trying to figure it out as one went along.
That got me thinking. If Xcode’s diagnostics were, indeed, that accurate, it still wouldn’t eliminate the fitness plateau because anyone from a ping-pong player to a pole-vaulter will eventually reach a threshold defined by their genetics. But would it help me get a better reading on what worked for me and what didn’t?
I had nothing to lose. Or did I? Turns out that I did have to sign a form that allowed my DNA’s information to become the property of Xcode and that’s something the company is accumulating as intellectual property, with plans to monetise aggregated and anonymous data as an additional revenue stream, says Harshal Shah, founder of Hrehan Venture Advisors, one of Xcode’s investors.
To be honest, when the ‘100 & Life’ test kit from Xcode landed up, I wasn’t blown away. Smartly packaged box, yes, but the only paraphernalia inside it was a miniature vial of amber fluid and an empty polymer test tube. That, and a disclaimer form giving Xcode the right to own and tinker around with the DNA sample you give them. I had expected something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. At the least, a slick titanium cybernetic device complete with whooshing sounds and an instantly generated hologram that beeped out what was wrong, or right, with me. No such luck. All I had was a test tube, into which I was instructed to spit. As I spat into the tube, I wondered how this simple, everyday act for some could result in copious data for biotechnologists. But in science I trusted, and sent the package off to Xcode.
THREE WEEKS WENT BY and not a word from the wonks. That, apparently, is how long it takes to decipher spit. And then came the e-mail from Xcode, complete with PDF attachment. Click. Open. The file turned out to be a 64-page genetic assessment report broken down into four categories: nutrigenetics, fitness genomics, health genomics, and genes and traits.
The technical jargon was Greek to me (or maybe it was Latin, but it was as incomprehensible): VO2 max, angiotensinogen codes, the MCM6 gene. But I persisted, and sure enough, struck gold a few pages in. The section on nutrigenetics got my attention.
Xcode’s diagnosis was that I was lactose-intolerant, had a high sensitivity to salt, and I was unsuited to process high-fat foods.
All of that was 100% accurate but what really got me thinking was the bit on lactose intolerance. To me, it proved conclusively that DNA changes over the years. My ability to process lactose has gotten worse over the past few years, and if DNA hadn’t changed, this test wouldn’t have caught it.
Leena Mogre, a fitness expert who runs a chain of gyms, demystified that for me later by explaining that there are “levels of intolerance” and such conditions can worsen over time.
The analysis on personal fitness said I was responsive to regular exercise but my muscle cells didn’t absorb oxygen as well as they should, which meant I would have to work out harder and more often than someone with an optimal level of absorption to maintain the same fitness level.
That bit of depressing news was followed by some consolation. That my muscle recovery between training sessions was super fast, allowing me to train harder and longer on a more regular basis.
Overall, my physical training has mostly leaned towards heavier weight training, balanced with some cardio (running, cycling, and walking). While the Xcode review said that I had an almost equal predisposition to long-distance running as well as sprinting, it suggested I do more endurance activities or engage in medium-intensity exercise for a longer duration as opposed to what I am doing already.
LAST YEAR, I was in Delhi for a week or so. Work done, I took on a friend at the squash court and half way into the fourth game, stretched for a point, like I had done hundreds of times earlier. Only this time, I heard a snap, saw my ankle roll over, and felt an intense bolt of pain shoot through my ankle.
I hadn’t broken anything (though it sure felt like it) but I had joined the ranks of those who had torn their ankle ligament. As I recovered over the next three months, I questioned how it had happened because, despite reminders from a deputy editor in Delhi that “I was getting on”, the thing was I wasn’t new to the sport. I had been playing squash on and off for almost 30 years and was generally fit.
The report seemed to have an answer: The COL5A1 gene, which controls collagen formation and is vital for flexibility, pointed to my flexibility being at a lower state, and hence, an increased risk for tendinopathy and sports injuries. The good doctors at Xcode suggest that these injuries can be avoided with pre-exercise warm-up stretching, and post-exercise cool-down sessions.
The report went on to detail general dietary suggestions and how high-fat foods were something I should avoid even in small quantities. Then, a trainer attached to Xcode called me up, and walked me through the report. Based on my history, he offered advice and tips on how I should fine-tune my workouts.
XCODE ISN’T THE only company offering genetic assessment. Dr Amol Raut, chief wellness advisor with Gene Support, a Pune-based nutrigenetics company that does the same thing, points to half-a-dozen players in the country that offer similar services.
National chains such as Gold’s Gym are in the process of selecting a diagnostics company for providing nutrigenetics services to their clients. What they will give priority to is a company with a training module that makes it easier to educate personal trainers, nutritionists, as well as customers. So far, gyms have been using blood tests and general BMI and treadmill and stress tests to gauge what works for whom, Mogre says.
Ultimately, how fast genetic assessment will change the way nutritionists operate and trainers plan routines for clients will depend on affordability. Gold’s Gym plans to offer a modified rack rate that starts at under Rs 4,000, which will give members a super-quick snapshot of their profile. Mogre underscores that it has to be affordable when you consider that a membership for a year at most gyms is between Rs 20,000 and
Rs 50,000. Xcode’s full panel, by the way, costs about Rs 15,000; that’s the test I took. (The basic version costs around Rs 5,000.)
Meanwhile, I’ve changed my routine around, recognise that I need to tweak the diet, and seem to have a better understanding of what will and won’t work for me. Now, it’s just a matter of putting theory into practice.