What preschool, physical activity and a healthy diet have in common

March 25th, 2021

Our genes have a major influence on who we are and what we look like. It will come as no big surprise when I say that in addition to our genes, our environment has an influence as well. For example, we all know that two very slim people are more likely to have children who are also slender. But that this doesn’t always have to be the case. If children of very slim parents adopt unhealthy eating habits that are characterized by too much sweet food and junk food, they can develop overweight too. 

It’s probably a bigger surprise when I say that the expression of our genes doesn’t remain stable throughout our lives, and that our environment has an influence on this as well. Indeed, our interactions with our environment affect the way our genes are expressed. Although our DNA material remains exactly the same, the expression of our genes alters under the influence of our environment. In part, this is logically easy to follow. 

Consider that there is a reasonable chance that parents with great musical talent will have children who are also musically talented. However, this talent will not, or not fully, come to expression if the children don’t get the opportunity or don’t have the commitment to develop themselves musically. 

But it’s not only this direct effect that I’m referring to. Our environment has an indirect influence on our genes through our body cells as well. Every cell in our body, be it a brain cell, an intestinal cell, a skin cell, or any other kind of cell, contains exactly the same DNA material. The way these cells develop and function differs because in all these cells different pieces of our DNA material are activated. Without going into more detail about how this works, you can understand, on the basis of this characteristic, that alterations in body cells due to environmental factors can effect the way in which DNA material, that is stored in these cells, is expressed. 

Different cells respond differently to the same environmental factors. For example, various body cells and brains cells are affected in different ways by the food we eat and the physical activities we perform, while other cells are not affected at all. Our eating habits and physical activities influence our body weight. In today’s society, obesity is an ever increasing problem. Obesity increases the risk of a variety of conditions. Consider, for example, the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, joint problems or psychological problems. Although research has shown that both overweight and the aforementioned disorders are partly determined by genetic factors, this doesn’t provide sufficient explanation for the large increase in these problems in recent decades. There are various indications that alterations in the expression of genes due to environmental factors can provide an additional explanation. For example, research has indicated that, in some cases, obesity can influence gene expression in such a way that someone develops Diabetes type 2. This means that it is possible that someone who, based on his or her DNA material, normally wouldn’t develop Diabetes type 2, could still develop this disease as a result of his or her interactions with environment. 

You could say that our DNA material provides the notes which we can use to make music, but that our environment determines which music will be played. 

The reason I’m telling you this is because it can help us develop resilience as well as provide a valuable perspective for positive proactive approaches. Let’s dig a little deeper into this. 

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology, has studied the extent to which beliefs about intelligence influence performance. Dweck’s research showed that people who believe that intelligence is a trait that can increase (people with what Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’) are more resilient when they’re confronted with complex or unsolvable problems than people who believe that intelligence is a fixed innate trait. She describes that people who believe that their intelligence is fixed are worried that they’re not intelligent enough and are mainly looking for confirmation that their intelligence suffices. They want to avoid appearing stupid. People who believe that their intelligence can increase are less worried about how smart or stupid they appear to be. These people perceive a complex problem as a challenge and an opportunity to increase their intelligence. When we accept that our genetic material influences who we are but doesn’t define us, so when we accept that we are so flexible that even the way our genetic material is expressed can adapt, we give ourselves mental space and the arguments to influence our development and the ways we cope with our circumstances. It gives us the ability to stop seeing problems and complex issues as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn something new. We have the opportunity to challenge ourselves, and to expose ourselves to new experiences and circumstances that do justice to our natural strengths. New reasons arise to set up groundbreaking initiatives and to create new paths. 

Let me give you an example. Researchers often use twin pairs to determine the extent to which genetic and environmental factors influence our traits. Studies with twin pairs offer these insights because identical twins share 100% of their genetic material and fraternal twin pairs, like common siblings, share about 50% of their genetic material. Various studies have shown that our cognitive skills (these are the skills related to, for example, our ability to learn, think and remember) are to a large extent genetically determined. Moreover, it has been found that our cognitive skills develop mainly during our early childhood and then stabilize reasonably well. This means that the greatest positive environmental contribution to people’s cognitive abilities can be made at a young age. 

This brings me to a positive proactive approach. There’s another way to quit bad habits. If our brain has evolved to learn habits based on rewards, then we can also make use of this. Instead of using our energy to suppress bad habits (a negative reactive approach), we can also use our energy to learn new positive habits that bring rewards themselves. We can teach our brains that there are also other rewards that can make us feel good and use this to develop new habits. This way we use our energy to achieve something we want to achieve. To work towards something positive in a proactive way. 

Before continuing, let me emphasize that a positive proactive approach is not a short cut and also requires effort, time and persistence. It’s a different approach that, unlike a reactive negative approach, makes us focus on the future. It makes us move towards something instead of moving away from something. If we want to develop or get better at something, we must do things that are beyond the reach of what we’ve already mastered, train ourselves to apply new perspectives and adopt new expectations. This could include learning new things that we’ve never done before, more specialistic skills that go beyond the skills we already have, or adopting the mindset that we always have the opportunity to learn, to change and develop. That’s why development requires a conscious effort. After all, it is easier to activate existing patterns than to create new ones. 

Suppose we perceive ourselves as impatient with a tendency to get angry easily when things don’t go our way. A negative reactive approach would prescribe us to use self-control to suppress our impulses. As we’ve discussed, this is easier said than done. It probably won’t take long before we revert to our old patterns. And if we do manage to suppress this pattern, we don’t have a positive pattern available to replace this negative pattern. 

In 2012, Tucker-Drob published a study that showed how big positive environmental contributions can be for the development of cognitive skills in children. Tucker-Drob examined the influence of preschool on the standard cognitive test scores of children. He studied more than 1200 twins (600 twin pairs) from families with varying backgrounds in America. The study concluded that children from families belonging to minority groups and families of lower socioeconomic status benefited the most from preschool. The reason for this was that these children were less mentally stimulated at home and in their immediate environment than children from wealthier families. Preschools thus provided a stimulating environment for these children that they didn’t get elsewhere. To give you an idea of how big the effect was, I would like to share two numbers from the study with you. For twins enrolled in preschool, approximately 45% of the variation in test scores was determined by environmental factors. And for twins who did not attend preschool, this variation was determined for approximately 70% by environmental factors. The finding that attending preschool seems to result in an increased influence of genetic factors is in this case logically easy to follow. If children are not sufficiently mentally stimulated during the years when their cognitive skills develop the most, they will never reach their maximum genetic potential. An environment characterized by stress and a lack of stimulation ensures that the expression of genes is obstructed. However, if children receive sufficient mental stimulation, the possibilities inherent in their genes will be much better utilized. Differences in test scores become less dependent on environmental factors and the effects of genetic factors become more visible. 

Based on these examples, it becomes clear that our society has some major opportunities for positive proactive approaches when it comes to stimulating physical activity (especially now with the ongoing Corona measures), teaching healthy habits, and making contributions to the cognitive development of young children. But these examples are random and the opportunities are endless. What opportunities for positive proactive approaches do you see for yourself? And for your team or organization?

Consulted sources:

C.S. Dweck. “Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development”. Psychology press, 2000. 

Elliot M. Tucker-Drob. “Preschools Reduce Early Academic-Achievement Gaps: A Longitudinal Twin Approach”. Psychological Science, 2012  

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