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The Amish paradox

Times Staff Writer

Forget the standard-issue health and fitness resolutions that include joining a gym, going to yoga and trading meatball subs for white-meat turkey. It may just be that the best way to get in shape is to plow the back 40, toss a few bales of hay and wash buckets of wet clothes by hand.

Call it the Amish paradox. An exercise science professor has discovered that a pocket of Old Order Amish folks in Ontario, Canada, has stunningly low obesity levels, despite a diet high in fat, calories and refined sugar -- exactly the stuff doctors tell us not to eat.

They’re at a paltry 4% obesity rate, compared to a whopping 31% in the general U.S. population, which, as we all know, is getting fatter by the minute. This group of Amish manages to keep its overweight levels low despite a diet that includes meat, potatoes, gravy, cakes, pies and eggs. So what’s their secret? Exercise, people. Exercise.

For starters, of the 98 Amish pedometer-wearing adults surveyed over a week, men averaged about 18,000 steps a day, women about 14,000. Most Americans do not come anywhere close to that, struggling to get in the recommended 10,000 steps a day.

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Amish men spent about 10 hours a week doing vigorous activities, women about 3 1/2 hours (heavy lifting, shoveling or digging, shoeing horses, tossing straw bales). Men averaged 43 hours of moderate activity a week, women about 39 hours (gardening, feeding farm animals, doing laundry). We feel virtuous if we manage to eke out half an hour a day on the StairMaster.

We know, of course, that the Industrial Revolution caused us to evolve from an agrarian society to a techno world. But these statistics show just how far we’ve fallen from a naturally active lifestyle to one in which eight hours of work is often spent sitting in front of a computer -- and what little leisure time we have is frittered away eating cheese curls while watching “The Bachelor.”

Lead researcher David R. Bassett Jr., professor of exercise science at the University of Tennessee, conducted the study to look at changes in physical activity from a historical perspective. His findings were published this month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, a journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

He chose this population of Amish for their adherence to a physically demanding farming lifestyle and rejection of things technical, such as automobiles and electricity. They are something of an artifact of how we lived 150 years ago.

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Higher rates of obesity exist in other North American Amish communities that have moved away from farming and segued into less strenuous occupations such as woodworking and quilting, according to the study. Amish men in Holmes County, Ohio, for example, had rates of obesity similar to non-Amish men; Amish women actually had higher rates, attributed to multiple pregnancies, diet and greater acceptance of overweight physiques.

The findings of the Old Order Amish, Bassett believes, serve to put our current slothful lives in perspective. “It can provide a sense of what we ought to be doing,” he says. “It’s a little ridiculous -- we drive to work, then go to the gym to walk on a treadmill. We go to great lengths to remove activity from our daily lives, and then we go to great lengths to put it back in. The Amish have done a better job than anybody of consciously thinking what impact technology will have on their lives.”

The study presents a dim ray of hope in a sea of bad news about the country’s climbing obesity rates. But there’s a big reality check here -- the vast majority of people can’t possibly replicate the way the Amish live.

“People aren’t going to go out and start farming,” says Michael L. Goran, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. “You can’t wind the clock back, but it does demonstrate the power of physical activity in preventing obesity.”

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This dichotomy between overweight Americans and trim Amish shows that our genes haven’t caught up to our diets and ways of living, according to Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. “Our genes are perfectly adapted to another lifestyle, because you need those fat calories to plow the back 40,” he says. “I exercise an hour every day, but I can’t eat whatever I want.”

It’s not just the exercise that separates us from the Amish. Heber points out that their meals, for instance, don’t consist of leftover pizza eaten while standing up and talking on the phone. “We’ve lost a lot of things in our multi-tasking lifestyle,” he says.

Bassett says the meals he ate with the Amish consisted of stick-to-your-ribs foods such as pancakes, eggs, ham, cake and milk, but also fresh fruits and vegetables at almost every noon and evening meal. According to the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, in 2000 only 28% of people were meeting the suggested daily requirements for vegetables (three to five servings a day), and just 17% for fruits (two to four servings a day). Snacking is practically nonexistent, just three squares a day, although the Amish do sometimes eat at fast-food restaurants when traveling.

Communities are small and structured to encourage walking, unlike today’s sprawling cities and towns that require cars or mass transit. Judith Stern, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Obesity Assn., says the modern world is designed to make us more efficient, meaning we move less and get fatter.

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“We’re not trying to re-create the Amish lifestyle,” she says, “but how do we create an environment in which people are more active spontaneously? We often don’t have sidewalks in the suburbs. If you want to walk the stairs in a building, they’re usually dark and uninviting.”

And then there’s the frustrating conundrum of leisure time. Remember how technological advances such as computers were supposed to give us lots of it? Between commuting to work and ferrying the kids to school and play dates, there seems to be precious little of it, despite the fact that we don’t have to grow our own food or chop wood for fuel. And when we do get a few minutes of downtime, says Heber, we often spend it surfing the Internet instead of the ocean.

“It always amazes me,” he adds, “that we don’t have an hour to exercise, but we do watch an average of four hours of TV a day.”

Though the Amish choose to exist largely apart from the rest of the population, they are not unaware of how the other 99.9% lives. Even their infrequent indulgence in fast foods is being examined.

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Bassett recalls reading a story in an Amish community newsletter that questioned the practice: “One of their bishops outlined the reasons why the fast-food industry is not really consistent with Amish beliefs, because everything is rush, rush, rush.”

Bassett remembers a comment from an Amish man who said that when venturing into town, he can’t help noticing the amount of overweight people. Says Bassett, “The man said, ‘Maybe they have it a little too easy.’ They’ve definitely noticed the same things we have, only from a different perspective.”


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