Obesity is worldwide health problem tied to both nature and nurture. Genetic mutations make some people more likely to gain weight than others, but exercise lessens those chances. Now, some surprising new research suggests that certain exercises are better than others at counteracting these fat genes. For example, cycling and swimming aren’t as beneficial as running or doing yoga.
And overall, the team found that jogging for 30 minutes at least three times a week is the best way to decrease the risk of obesity.
Weighing the Risk
With a 23andMe-like database of over 18,000 Chinese adults, the researchers calculated people’s risk of obesity by identifying roughly 142,000 individual variations in DNA. Having more of these genetic differences meant an individual was more likely to be obese.
But adding certain workout routines into the equation lowered the risk of obesity.
High-risk people who exercised in at least one of six different ways – jogging, hiking, walking, brisk walking, ballroom dancing, or yoga – had healthier body mass index (BMI) scores compared to high-risk people who didn’t do these activities. Jogging was the best of all because it was the only exercise that reduced the genetic effects across more than one measure of obesity.
This study got a clearer picture of how genes affect weight gain because it included five measures of obesity: body mass index, body fat percentage, waist circumference, hip circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio. Previous studies that tied genetics and obesity had only calculated obesity using BMI, but this indicator has been criticized for not being the most accurate method.
“BMI is easy to calculate. However, it overlooks the fat composition of one’s body weight,” lead study author, Wan-Yu Lin, said in an e-mail. She added that BMI does not account for mid-section obesity, which increases the risk for diseases like diabetes. Body fat percentage and waist circumference better reflect mid-section obesity.
Obviously, the weight loss benefits of exercise are not new, but this in-depth study compared 18 different exercises’ relationship with obesity.
The team found that jogging was better at reducing genetically predisposed people’s risk of obesity than low-impact forms of exercise like cycling, stretching and swimming. The study’s authors say these activities were not as beneficial because they usually require less energy.
Mathias Rask-Andersen, a pharmacist who’d done similar genetic studies with U.K. residents, suggested that how strenuously and how long people exercise matters.
And, in their comparison, the Taiwanese research team found that regularly playing Dance Dance Revolution did not reduce obesity risk like ballroom dancing. And Qigong, a more meditative version of Tai Chi, was not as helpful as yoga sessions. And even though torso-twisting Tai Chi and table tennis were linked with lower ratings of mid-section obesity, they did not overpower the influence of genetics.
Too few people in the study sample partook in weight training, badminton, table tennis, basketball, or tennis to figure out how these activities ranked against jogging.
Made in Taiwan
Another one of the study’s authors, Po-Hsiu Kuo, said that it is unclear whether jogging specifically would have the same large benefit for Caucasians. But, regular exercise’s ability to blunt the genetic effects on obesity measures besides BMI may apply to the broader population.
Rask-Andersen, who studied Caucasian populations, agreed that the findings “probably generalize pretty well.” He also said additional studies looking at the relationship between genes and lifestyle choices have the potential to make medicine more individualized, even though scientists are still far from understanding exactly how different genes lead to obesity.
The team’s research was published Thursday in the journal PLOS Genetics.