Can you stay lean when fat runs in the family or are you doomed to your genetic heritage? That’s the question a group of researchers examined through a meta-analysis of studies of exercise on the so-called fat gene or FTO. The FTO gene was first identified several years ago and scientists now estimate the risk of overweight or obesity is increased by 12 percent in those who have it. Roughly two-thirds of European and African people have it and, in Asians, the prevalence is nearly half of the population. No estimates were available for North Americans, although it’s my guess that we would fall closer to the Europeans than the Asians.
So it appears that a majority of us are predisposed to being fat, unless we can somehow subvert that enervating possibility. And that’s exactly what the results of the 2011 study published in the journal PLoS Medicine emphatically found. Physical activity can alter your genetic destiny. Even small amounts, just an hour a week of moderate to vigorous exercise, reduced the effect of FTO by nearly 30 percent. This would suggest that the effects of regular workouts could allow someone who might otherwise be overweight to stay within acceptable limits.
Exercise scientists aren’t certain how the FTO gene promotes weight gain but they do readily implicate both appetite and behavior. “Though there are only limited functional data, it appears that the gene is highly expressed in the brain,” said Dr. Lu Qi of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. It is very active in “the regions that regulate the balance of energy intake and expenditure,” Qi added. “The loss of energy balance is the basis of development of obesity and physical activity is among the most important parts of energy expenditure. Biologically, it is possible that these two factors, genes and physical activity, may interact in affecting energy balance.”
It’s also possible that exercise might have a direct impact on the FTO gene, perhaps changing how it functions, such as altering whether it expresses particular proteins or remains silent.
The scientists admit that much of this is conjecture and that more experimentation needs to be done. However, the implications of these findings bring hope to the many people who feel that because obesity runs in the family, they have no control over their weight issues. This research shows that regular physical activity can give you back some of that control.