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Exercise, genes and obesity

Exercise mitigates genetic effects of obesity later in life

(Credit: Obesity Action Coalition)
Physical activity attenuates the influence of genetic predisposition to obesity and this effect is more profound in the oldest age group

Women over age 70 who exercise can reduce the influence one's genes have on obesity, according to a study by researchers at the University at Buffalo's School of Public Health and Health Professions. Indeed, the study suggests that physical activity attenuates the influence of genetic predisposition to obesity, and this effect is more profound in the oldest age group. The investigation included researchers from UB, as well as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Rush University Medical Center; University of California, Davis; and The Ohio State University.

The study, ‘Physical activity modifies genetic susceptibility to obesity in postmenopausal women’, published in the journal Menopause, evaluated whether the association of BMI associated meta genome-wide association study single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) (as a genetic risk score) and BMI is modified by physical activity and age.

"Our sample, which included older women, is the first to show that in the 70- to 79-year-old age group, exercise can mitigate the genetic effects of obesity," said the study's lead author, Dr Heather Ochs-Balcom, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health in the University at Buffalo's (UB) School of Public Health and Health Professions. "The message here is that your genetic risk for obesity is not wholly deterministic. The choices we make in our life play a large role in our health."

Researchers studied 8,206 women of European ancestry who participated in the Women's Health Initiative. They used a larger set of 95 genetic polymorphisms to construct their BMI genetic risk score to study the interaction between physical activity and obesity. Then, they evaluated whether genetic associations were modified by exercise and age.

The study revealed that genetic associations on BMI were strongest in sedentary postmenopausal women and weakest in women who reported high levels of recreational physical activity.

The researchers found evidence for modification of the BMI GRS-BMI association according to both physical activity and age and they observed a significant two-way interaction of BMI GRS × physical activity in the crude model (p= 0.05), where a smaller effect of the BMI GRS on BMI with increasing physical activity. Notably, in the 70+ age group, the BMI GRS-BMI association was attenuated and no longer significant in the high-activity group; the beta coefficient for the 70+ high-activity group was relatively small and nonsignificant (p= 0.58) compared with 70+ sedentary group (P= 2.5 × 10−7).

"Our work suggests that in older age, we can overcome our destiny for obesity - given to us by our parents - through exercise," said Ochs-Balcom.

The study is significant in that, up to this point, little had been known about the effect of obesity genes later in life, particularly whether genetic predisposition can be mitigated by healthy behaviours such as physical activity, the researchers note.

It's also one of a growing number of studies highlighting the benefits of being physically active, especially as it pertains to healthy aging.

"For the elderly, exercise is important for preventing muscle loss, which helps reduce the risk of falls," added Ochs-Balcom. "Plus, there are many other benefits of exercise in older adults."

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