You can run away from your fat genes, and you can waltz right on by a hereditary risk of gaining weight. But it’s a little less clear that mimicking funky moves in front of a video game console will protect you from a genetic vulnerability to becoming obese.
So finds a new study that identifies six ways people with unlucky bits of DNA can stave off the accumulation of excess pounds.
Years of research have revealed that inheritance — the fine print transmitted in our DNA — accounts for somewhere between 21% and 84% of the average person’s propensity to become obese. So if there is one takeaway from genetic studies of obesity, it’s this: Even if your parents saddled you with a passel of fat genes, there’s still plenty you can do to counter their influence.
But what, besides a lifetime of ascetic eating, actually works?
The new study finds that exercise does — and it gets very specific about which forms of regular exercise can ward off obesity in those with more than their fair share of the gene variants that make excessive weight gain more likely.
Combing through a trove of data maintained by Taiwan’s central Biobank, researchers found that fat-prone residents who jogged regularly were the most likely to overcome their inherited vulnerability to obesity. They also found that mountain climbing, long yoga sessions, ballroom dancing, “exercise walking” and even plain-old walking helped ward off a body-mass index (or BMI) that defines obesity.
The results were published Thursday in the journal PLOS Genetics.
The researchers, from National Taiwan University, collected genetic data, a wide range of health measures and self-reported exercise patterns from 18,424 Taiwanese citizens between 30 and 70 years old. Roughly 58% of them said they did not exercise regularly, while 42% reported routine exercise.
While variants of nearly 100 genes have been linked to obesity in people of European descent, those risk factors might not apply to Taiwan’s Han Chinese population. So the researchers used a panel of 50 obesity-related gene variants and divided their subjects into four groups, ranging from those least genetically prone to pack on fat to those with the greatest vulnerability.
Even after accounting for other powerful influences on body size and fat mass — including educational attainment, gender and age — a habit of exercise was powerfully protective. At every point along the continuum of vulnerability, those who said they exercised regularly had a lower BMI, waist circumference, hip circumference and proportion of body fat than did those who did not exercise.
Jogging, an activity reported by only 12% of the large study’s 7,652 physically active participants, had the added benefit of helping to keep participants’ ratio of fat-to-lean tissue mass in check, and it had a significant effect in reducing their average hip circumference.
Not so effective, the researchers found, were a variety of exercise regimens that are popular in Taiwan. Those included swimming, bicycling and stretching, as well as tai chi, qigong and Dance Dance Revolution.
That jogging and mountain climbing countered a genetic vulnerability to become fat may not be such a surprise. But the results about Dance Dance Revolution are likely to disappoint its legions of devoted fans.
In 2012, the company behind DDR — Japan’s Konami Entertainment — launched a classroom edition of its video game, which lets up to 48 students dance in unison to the same song on wireless controller mats that judge the execution of their moves.
In a collaboration with United Healthcare, Konami introduced DDR to American classrooms in Florida, Georgia, Texas and Southern California to get kids up and moving. A 2013 study found that “exer-games” such as DDR could help young children, at least, meet government recommendations for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
Konami did not return calls or emails to discuss the new findings.