Shengxu Li and colleagues use data from a large prospective observational cohort to examine the extent to which a genetic predisposition toward obesity may be modified by living a physically active lifestyle.
We have previously shown that multiple genetic loci identified by genome-wide association studies (GWAS) increase the susceptibility to obesity in a cumulative manner. It is, however, not known whether and to what extent this genetic susceptibility may be attenuated by a physically active lifestyle. We aimed to assess the influence of a physically active lifestyle on the genetic predisposition to obesity in a large population-based study.
Methods and Findings
We genotyped 12 SNPs in obesity-susceptibility loci in a population-based sample of 20,430 individuals (aged 39–79 y) from the European Prospective Investigation of Cancer (EPIC)-Norfolk cohort with an average follow-up period of 3.6 y. A genetic predisposition score was calculated for each individual by adding the body mass index (BMI)-increasing alleles across the 12 SNPs. Physical activity was assessed using a self-administered questionnaire. Linear and logistic regression models were used to examine main effects of the genetic predisposition score and its interaction with physical activity on BMI/obesity risk and BMI change over time, assuming an additive effect for each additional BMI-increasing allele carried. Each additional BMI-increasing allele was associated with 0.154 (standard error [SE] 0.012) kg/m2 (p = 6.73×10−37) increase in BMI (equivalent to 445 g in body weight for a person 1.70 m tall). This association was significantly (pinteraction = 0.005) more pronounced in inactive people (0.205 [SE 0.024] kg/m2 [p = 3.62×10−18; 592 g in weight]) than in active people (0.131 [SE 0.014] kg/m2 [p = 7.97×10−21; 379 g in weight]). Similarly, each additional BMI-increasing allele increased the risk of obesity 1.116-fold (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.093–1.139, p = 3.37×10−26) in the whole population, but significantly (pinteraction = 0.015) more in inactive individuals (odds ratio [OR] = 1.158 [95% CI 1.118–1.199; p = 1.93×10−16]) than in active individuals (OR = 1.095 (95% CI 1.068–1.123; p = 1.15×10−12]). Consistent with the cross-sectional observations, physical activity modified the association between the genetic predisposition score and change in BMI during follow-up (pinteraction = 0.028).
Our study shows that living a physically active lifestyle is associated with a 40% reduction in the genetic predisposition to common obesity, as estimated by the number of risk alleles carried for any of the 12 recently GWAS-identified loci.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
In the past few decades, the global incidence of obesity—defined as a body mass index (BMI, a simple index of weight-for-height that uses the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) of 30 and over, has increased so much that this growing public health concern is now commonly referred to as the “obesity epidemic.” Once considered prevalent only in high-income countries, obesity is an increasing health problem in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. In 2005, at least 400 million adults world-wide were obese, and the projected figure for 2015 is a substantial increase of 300 million to around 700 million. Childhood obesity is also a growing concern. Contributing factors to the obesity epidemic are a shift in diet to an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars and a trend towards decreased physical activity due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
However, genetics are also thought to play a critical role as genetically predisposed individuals may be more prone to obesity if they live in an environment that has abundant access to energy-dense food and labor-saving devices.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although recent genetic studies (genome-wide association studies) have identified 12 alleles (a DNA variant that is located at a specific position on a specific chromosome) associated with increased BMI, there has been no convincing evidence of the interaction between genetics and lifestyle. In this study the researchers examined the possibility of such an interaction by assessing whether individuals with a genetic predisposition to increased obesity risk could modify this risk by increasing their daily physical activity.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used a population-based cohort study of 25,631 people living in Norwich, UK (The EPIC-Norfolk study) and identified individuals who were 39 to 79 years old during a health check between 1993 and 1997. The researchers invited these people to a second health examination. In total, 20,430 individuals had baseline data available, of which 11,936 had BMI data at the second health check. The researchers used genotyping methods and then calculated a genetic predisposition score for each individual and their occupational and leisure-time physical activities were assessed by using a validated self-administered questionnaire. Then, the researchers used modeling techniques to examine the main effects of the genetic predisposition score and its interaction with physical activity on BMI/obesity risk and BMI change over time. The researchers found that each additional BMI-increasing allele was associated with an increase in BMI equivalent to 445 g in body weight for a person 1.70 m tall and that the size of this effect was greater in inactive people than in active people. In individuals who have a physically active lifestyle, this increase was only 379 g/allele, or 36% lower than in physically inactive individuals in whom the increase was 592 g/allele. Furthermore, in the total sample each additional obesity-susceptibility allele increased the odds of obesity by 1.116-fold. However, the increased odds per allele for obesity risk were 40% lower in physically active individuals (1.095 odds/allele) compared to physically inactive individuals (1.158 odds/allele).
What Do These Findings Mean?
The findings of this study indicate that the genetic predisposition to obesity can be reduced by approximately 40% by having a physically active lifestyle. The findings of this study suggest that, while the whole population benefits from increased physical activity levels, individuals who are genetically predisposed to obesity would benefit more than genetically protected individuals. Furthermore, these findings challenge the deterministic view of the genetic predisposition to obesity that is often held by the public, as they show that even the most genetically predisposed individuals will benefit from adopting a healthy lifestyle. The results are limited by participants self-reporting their physical activity levels, which is less accurate than objective measures of physical activity.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000332.
This study relies on the results of previous genome-wide association studies The National Human Genome Research Institute provides an easy-to-follow guide to understanding such studies
The International Association for the Study of Obesity aims to improve global health by promoting the understanding of obesity and weight-related diseases through scientific research and dialogue
The International Obesity Taskforce is the research-led think tank and advocacy arm of the International Association for the Study of Obesity
The Global Alliance for the Prevention of Obesity and Related Chronic Disease is a global action program that addresses the issues surrounding the prevention of obesity
The National Institutes of Health has its own obesity task force, which includes 26 institutes