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Lessons from the Amish: We're not doomed to obesity*

September 9, 2008 |  1:06 pm

OK, folks, it’s time for another round of Health Lessons We Can Learn From the Amish. Four years ago we discovered that the Amish maintained super-low obesity levels despite eating a diet high in fat, calories and refined sugar. They key was their level of physical activity — men averaged 18,000 steps a day, women 14,000. That’s monumental compared to the paltry couple of thousand or so most of us eke out in a day.

AmishA recent study revealed even more about the Old Order Amish: They maintain low obesity levels despite having a gene variation that makes them susceptible to obesity. The secret here? You guessed it — lots of physical activity.

"A lot of the Amish are farmers and participate in manual activities," says Evadnie Rampersaud, associate research professor at the Miami Institute for Human Genomics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and the study’s lead author (the study was done when she was at the University of Maryland). "Even household chores are intense because they don’t have the conveniences that we have." Those in the high ranges were active six to nine hours a day, others, three to four. The 711 participants in the study, published in the Sept. 8 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, had their daily movements tracked for a week with accelerometers, devices that monitor activity.

The FTO gene, shown in other studies to have an association with obesity and high body mass index, showed up among the Amish — some had two copies of the variation, and some had none. But even some who had the double variation avoided being overweight.

"The studies show that if you have two copies of the gene and you’re incorporating physical activity in your daily life, you’re less likely to become obese," says Rampersaud. "This tells us that we’re not doomed by our genes."

But she doesn’t recommend people run to the nearest geneticist and get tested. "Obesity isn’t really determined by genetics alone, but by environmental factors as well. (This quote has been modified from the original to render it more accurate, at Rampersaud's request. The original quote was: "Obesity isn’t really determined by genetics, but by environmental factors.") We’re not doomed to become obese because we have this gene that we may or may not know about. By living a healthy lifestyle, getting physical activity, eating a proper diet, you can actually impact the final outcome." Similarly, those without the variation shouldn’t deem it a license to sit on the sofa and pig out.

Rampersaud also cautions against believing that this means people have to exercise six to nine hours a day to keep off the pounds. "You are going to have an increased benefit depending on the amount of exercise you get," she says. "But we need large scale studies in the general population to really figure this out."

In the meantime, anyone want to go out and plow the back 40?

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Dan Loh / AP

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