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Originally published September 29 2008

Genes Donít Always Determine the Size of Your Jeans

by Joanne Waldron

(NaturalNews) Are people with fat parents destined to be obese? Not necessarily. According to a press release by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, high levels of physical activity can supersede a gene that typically causes people to gain weight. Researchers examined gene variants and activity levels of the Old Order Amish in Lancaster County, Pa., and discovered that a gene related to obesity, known as the FTO gene, had no effect on people who had high levels of physical activity.

FTO Gene Linked to Obesity

Dr. Snitker, senior author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, believes that the FTO gene is probably just one of many genes linked to obesity. The FTO gene has been linked to obesity and an increased body mass index (BMI) in many large studies. For example, according to a report by British scientists last year, over half of all people of European descent have one or two copies of a variation of this gene. The unfortunate individuals with two copies of this particular gene are generally seven pounds heavier and are 67% more likely to be obese than those people who don't have it.

Exercise Counteracts Effects of FTO Gene

While University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers found the same link in their study of 704 Amish men and women between variations of the FTO gene and increased risk of obesity, they also learned that high levels of physical activity seemed to counteract the gene's effects. According to the authors of the study, "Our results strongly suggest that the increased risk of obesity due to genetic susceptibility can be blunted through physical activity. These findings emphasize the important role of physical activity in public health efforts to combat obesity, particularly in genetically susceptible individuals."

According to Dr. Snitker, "Some of the genes shown to cause obesity in our modern environment may not have had this effect a few centuries ago when most people's lives were similar to that of present-day Amish farmers." He believes that factors related to environment and lifestyle (i.e. high-fat diet, lack of physical activity) may be triggers for obesity in people who are genetically susceptible. "One day, we hope to be able to provide a personally optimized prescription to prevent or treat obesity in people based on their individual genetic makeup."

Several Hours of Moderate Activity Daily Needed

In the study, researchers measured the activity levels of the participants with the aid of a device worn on the hip called an accelerometer, which measures body movement. The most active people in the group burned about 900 more kilocalories per day than the others. To put this in terms that may be a bit easier to understand, this is the equivalent of about three or four hours worth of moderately intense activity.

According to Evadnie Rampersaud, Ph.D., the lead author and a former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, "Having multiple copies of FTO gene variants had no effect on body weight for people who were the most physically active, regardless of whether they were men or women. But in less active people, the association between the gene and increased BMI was significant. This provides evidence that the negative effects of the FTO variants on increasing body weight can be moderated by physical activity."

Amish People Ideal for Study

One reason this group of Amish people is considered to be such a good group for this kind of research is because they are a genetically homogenous people whose ancestry can be traced back for 14 generations to a small group that migrated from Europe in the mid-1700s. As many people know, Amish people do not take advantage of the conveniences of modern life. They work very hard in occupations that are often quite physically demanding. Previous studies by the University of Maryland have shown that the Amish people are just as obese as other Caucasians in the U.S., but for some reason, they have half the incidence of type 2 diabetes and lower cholesterol levels, despite a diet high in fat and cholesterol.

Want to be Thin? Move Your Butt!

Dr. Snitker states, "Our study shows that a high level of physical activity can 'level the playing field,' equalizing the risk of obesity between those who have copies of the FTO gene variant and those who don't." Therefore, it certainly appears prudent for those who seem predisposed to obesity to modify more than just their eating habits. Want to be thin? Get off the couch. Find a way to get several hours of moderate exercise each and every day. As this study demonstrates, it is possible to choose to be thin.

About the author

Joanne Waldron is a computer scientist with a passion for writing and sharing health-related news and information with others. She hosts the Naked Wellness: The Gentle Health Revolution forum, which is devoted to achieving radiant health, well-being, and longevity.

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