DNA Damage Following Acute Aerobic Exercise: A Systematic Review and Meta‑analysis

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55 Citations (Scopus)
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Background Exercise is widely recognised for its health enhancing benefits. Despite this, an overproduction of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (RONS), outstripping antioxidant defence mechanisms, can lead to a state of (chronic) oxidative stress. DNA is a vulnerable target of RONS attack and, if left unrepaired, DNA damage may cause genetic instability. Objective This meta-analysis aimed to systematically investigate and assess the overall effect of studies reporting DNA damage following acute aerobic exercise. Methods Web of Science, PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Scopus were searched until April 2019. Outcomes included (1) multiple time-points (TPs) of measuring DNA damage post-exercise, (2) two different quantification methods (comet assay and 8-oxo-2′-deoxyguanosine; 8-OHdG), and (3) protocols of high intensity (≥ 75% of maximum rate of oxygen consumption; VO2-max) and long distance (≥ 42 km). Results Literature search identified 4316 non-duplicate records of which 35 studies were included in the meta-analysis. The evidence was strong, showcasing an increase in DNA damage immediately following acute aerobic exercise with a large-effect size at TP 0 (0 h) (SMD = 0.875; 95% CI 0.5, 1.25; p < 0.05). When comparing between comet assay and 8-OHdG at TP 0, a significant difference was observed only when using the comet assay. Finally, when isolating protocols of long-distance and high-intensity exercise, increased DNA damage was only observed in the latter. (SMD = 0.48; 95% CI − 0.16, 1.03; p = 0.15 and SMD = 1.18; 95% CI 0.71, 1.65; p < 0.05 respectively). Conclusions A substantial increase in DNA damage occurs immediately following acute aerobic exercise. This increase remains significant between 2 h and 1 day, but not within 5–28 days post-exercise. Such an increase was not observed in protocols of a long-distance. The relationship between exercise and DNA damage may be explained through the hormesis theory, which is somewhat one-dimensional, and thus limited. The hormesis theory describes how exercise modulates any advantageous or harmful effects mediated through RONS, by increasing DNA oxidation between the two end-points of the curve: physical inactivity and overtraining. We propose a more intricate approach to explain this relationship: a multi-dimensional model, to develop a better understanding of the complexity of the relationship between DNA integrity and exercise.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)103-127
Number of pages25
JournalSports Medicine
Issue number1
Early online date16 Sept 2019
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Jan 2020


  • DNA
  • Exercise
  • meta-analysis
  • Oxidative stress
  • oxidative damage


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