Ruth Loos and colleagues report findings from a meta-analysis of multiple studies examining the extent to which physical activity attenuates effects of a specific gene variant, FTO, on obesity in adults and children. They report a fairly substantial attenuation by physical activity on the effects of this genetic variant on the risk of obesity in adults.
The FTO gene harbors the strongest known susceptibility locus for obesity. While many individual studies have suggested that physical activity (PA) may attenuate the effect of FTO on obesity risk, other studies have not been able to confirm this interaction. To confirm or refute unambiguously whether PA attenuates the association of FTO with obesity risk, we meta-analyzed data from 45 studies of adults (n = 218,166) and nine studies of children and adolescents (n = 19,268).
Methods and Findings
All studies identified to have data on the FTO rs9939609 variant (or any proxy [r2>0.8]) and PA were invited to participate, regardless of ethnicity or age of the participants. PA was standardized by categorizing it into a dichotomous variable (physically inactive versus active) in each study. Overall, 25% of adults and 13% of children were categorized as inactive. Interaction analyses were performed within each study by including the FTO×PA interaction term in an additive model, adjusting for age and sex. Subsequently, random effects meta-analysis was used to pool the interaction terms. In adults, the minor (A−) allele of rs9939609 increased the odds of obesity by 1.23-fold/allele (95% CI 1.20–1.26), but PA attenuated this effect (pinteraction = 0.001). More specifically, the minor allele of rs9939609 increased the odds of obesity less in the physically active group (odds ratio = 1.22/allele, 95% CI 1.19–1.25) than in the inactive group (odds ratio = 1.30/allele, 95% CI 1.24–1.36). No such interaction was found in children and adolescents.
The association of the FTO risk allele with the odds of obesity is attenuated by 27% in physically active adults, highlighting the importance of PA in particular in those genetically predisposed to obesity.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Two in three Americans are overweight, of whom half are obese, and the trend towards increasing obesity is now seen across developed and developing countries. There has long been interest in understanding the impact of genes and environment when it comes to apportioning responsibility for obesity. Carrying a change in the FTO gene is common (found in three-quarters of Europeans and North Americans) and is associated with a 20%–30% increased risk of obesity. Some overweight or obese individuals may feel that the dice are loaded and there is little point in fighting the fat; it has been reported that those made aware of their genetic susceptibility to obesity may still choose a poor diet. A similar fatalism may occur when overweight and obese people consider physical activity. But disentangling the influence of physical activity on those genetically susceptible to obesity from other factors that might impact weight is not straightforward, as it requires large sample sizes, could be subject to publication bias, and may rely on less than ideal self-reporting methods.
Why Was This Study Done?
The public health ramifications of understanding the interaction between genetic susceptibility to obesity and physical activity are considerable. Tackling the rising prevalence of obesity will inevitably include interventions principally aimed at changing dietary intake and/or increasing physical activity, but the evidence for these with regards to those genetically susceptible has been lacking to date. The authors of this paper set out to explore the interaction between the commonest genetic susceptibility trait and physical activity using a rigorous meta-analysis of a large number of studies.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The authors were concerned that a meta-analysis of published studies would be limited both by the data available to them and by possible bias. Instead of this more widely used approach, they took the literature search as their starting point, identified other studies through their collaborators’ network, and then undertook a meta-analysis of all available studies using a new and standardized analysis plan. This entailed an extremely large number of authors mining their data afresh to extract the relevant data points to enable such a meta-analysis. Physical activity was identified in the original studies in many different ways, including by self-report or by using an external measure of activity or heart rate. In order to perform the meta-analysis, participants were labeled as physically active or inactive in each study. For studies that had used a continuous scale, the authors decided that the bottom 20% of the participants were inactive (10% for children and adolescents). Using data from over 218,000 adults, the authors found that carrying a copy of the susceptibility gene increased the odds of obesity by 1.23-fold. But the size of this influence was 27% less in the genetically susceptible adults who were physically active (1.22-fold) compared to those who were physically inactive (1.30-fold). In a smaller study of about 19,000 children, no such effect of physical activity was seen.
What Do these Findings Mean?
This study demonstrates that people who carry the susceptibility gene for obesity can benefit from physical activity. This should inform health care professionals and the wider public that the view of genetically determined obesity not being amenable to exercise is incorrect and should be challenged. Dissemination, implementation, and ensuring uptake of effective physical activity programs remains a challenge and deserves further consideration. That the researchers treated “physically active” as a yes/no category, and how they categorized individuals, could be criticized, but this was done for pragmatic reasons, as a variety of means of assessing physical activity were used across the studies. It is unlikely that the findings would have changed if the authors had used a different method of defining physically active. Most of the studies included in the meta-analysis looked at one time point only; information about the influence of physical activity on weight changes over time in genetically susceptible individuals is only beginning to emerge.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001116.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Lennert Veerman
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides obesity-related statistics, details of prevention programs, and an overview on public health strategy in the United States
A more worldwide view is given by the World Health Organization
The UK National Health Service website gives information on physical activity guidelines for different age groups, while similar information can also be found from US sources