New Study: Exercise is Good and Lowers Obesity

double helix magnifiedIn a new study out of the Archives of Internal Medicine investigators discovered that even people with extra copies of the “fat mass and obesity” genes called FTO did NOT get fatter if they were active throughout the day. In other words, a so-called genetic predisposition to obesity was effectively avoided when the owners of the so-called defective genes were active four to five hours a day doing low-level aerobic stuff. And it didn’t have to be much: brisk walking, housecleaning and gardening were sufficient. Just like Grok did in the original Primal Blueprint. 900 calories day of this was plenty.

I haven’t seen the whole study – just an abstract, but a quote from one of the authors interviewed on cracked me up when he said, “Our study shows that a high level of physical activity can ‘level the playing field,’ equalizing the risk of obesity between those who have copies of the FTO gene variant and those who don’t.” Which basically means that even if you are predisposed to being obese, if you move around a lot all the time you won’t be quite so predisposed. They paid how much to find this out?

Interestingly, the authors also opined that obesity within the Amish (and the US in general) was related to lack of activity and a high-fat diet. There was no recognition that the Amish have a predominantly grain-based diet and that much of the obesity that does occur within the non-active Amish was likely due to the high carbs. Sufficient activity can prevent weight gains even in the face of a high carb diet (I ate 1,000 grams a day when I ran and I stayed skinny). We know from our basic MDA science that activity helps increase insulin sensitivity (a good thing) even when the diet is high in carbs.

For those who saw my FOX News piece earlier this week wherein I said that 80 percent of your fat loss results will come from how you eat, note that I said you still have to exercise and that low-level aerobic work was better than “chronic cardio.” Also note that I was discussing how to lose fat once you have gained it. If you are Amish and are active all your life, it may happen – even if you have the FTO gene – that you never accumulate much fat because you manage your insulin production and burn off both stored glycogen and fats through your daily low-level activity.

But for me, the real take home message is once again that no matter how “doomed” you may feel because of a family history of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis or cancer, you have the absolute ability to determine whether or not those genes get turned on or off or the degree to which they get expressed or even the degree to which other genes interfere with them. It’s all about the signals. And the irony is that all the lifestyle behaviors in the Primal Blueprint will provide signals that favor health over sickness whether you have those “defective” genes or not. Having those genes simply raises a red flag for you that says that you – more than most – need to pay strict attention to eating and moving Primally. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the rest of us are immune either. Genes only turn on or off based on the signals you give them. Bottom line: everyone benefits from living Primally.

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Gene Expression

Control Your Lifestyle, Control Your Genes

The Context of Calories

TAGS:  body fat

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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27 thoughts on “New Study: Exercise is Good and Lowers Obesity”

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  1. The closing lines in this article are great, everyone would benefit from living the Primal Lifestyle….. Manipulating our genes to benefit us through following a good lifestyle is the best thing we can do.

  2. I wouldn’t categorize this into the “oh duh” studies. This is actually pretty frickin’ revelatory. The article doesn’t say that exercise is good and lowers obesity, it says that longer periods of physical activity (Grok hiking around all day) actually suppresses the gene causing a predisposition of obesity. Understanding that exercise burns calories and makes you thinner isn’t anything new, but understanding how to live to improve your genetic expression, that’s something special. It’s like the difference between washing your face every day to get rid of pimples that keep coming back vs. learning lifestyle habits that prevent the acne from appearing in the first place. For people with a genetic propensity toward obesity, that’s good news. Of course, it’s also what Mark has been saying all along.

  3. Hey Mark,

    I just had a quick question: how do I build muscle on a low-carb, primal blueprint diet? I’ve heard many people say I should eat a high carb post-workout meal because my muscles are starved of glycogen – is this true?


    Joshua Xiong.

  4. I think it is of the utmost importance for people to understand that obesity is something that can be overcome even if everyone in your family has yet to defeat it. I think it is also important to note that a lot of weight loss is mental. Getting over mental blocks and coming to grips with the idea that anything can be overcome is important!

  5. You would think that this study is good news, but not everyone sees it that way.

    I blogged on this subject as well and was deluged with nasty comments from the Fat Acceptance crowd. It seems like they see this study as some sort of prejudiced attack on overweight people.

    It’s amazing to see how differently people can interpret the same info.

  6. Of course they did DR. It’s amazing how many people want an excuse. Seems like now a day, people would prefer not to have any responsibility… even for themselves! If its not your fault, you don’t have to fix it right?

  7. Totally agree with Son of Grok on this one. So many people have to blame someone for their own problems. Although this scientific study’s findings are rather obvious at least it removes some of the excuses people once used.

  8. There’s a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this month that has a different take on exercise and obesity, although it’s not focused on a specific population like this study is. From the abstract: “BMI, FM [fat mass], and WC [waist circumference] may predict sedentary time, but our results do not suggest that sedentary time predicts future obesity.”

    Obviously being active and exercising are important for a variety of reasons, but the direct, causal relationship between activity level and weight gain seems unfounded in most situations.

    Food Is Love

  9. Thanks for the link Debs. The take-home message there is that you might just be lucky enough to be sedentary and still not become obese (maybe skinnyfat, though). Sedentarianism isn’t necessarily predictive of obesity (and maybe it’s also what you do and don’t eat in that case). But pretty much anyone who exercises a fair amount from an early age and throughout life will have a higher liklihood of NOT getting obese, regardless of genetics (unless they are SO bad on diet that it overwhelms). So why not just recommend that everyone engage in daily activity all their lives and be done with it? Oh. Wait. We do. Nevermind.

  10. Here’s my frustration…

    I appear to have a damaged endocrine system (4 years on Clomid – we’re only supposed to max out at 1 year) and the symptoms of a goofy thyroid (but my blood test is in the “normal” range so doctors won’t even see me).

    I weigh a little over 200, rode my bike 105 miles since Sunday AND walked my 10,000 pedometer steps AND maxed out at about 100 grams of carb a day (love those fruits, berries and summer squash) I lost 1/2 pound this week.


  11. MzEllen,

    Disclaimer: I am no Doctor or Expert.

    That being said, it sounds like you are focusing heavily on cardio! You might greatly benefit from some high intensity resistance training a couple times a week. Grok didn’t just walk a lot, he had to lift things, move things, climb trees and mountains and fend off beasts and transport spoils!

  12. MzEllen:

    The paleo-approach has three basic legs if you will:

    1.) High-intensity exercise designed to increase lean muscle mass and bone density, which then increases your basal metabolic rate. Just try and burn 2000 kcal a day through exercise. Not gunna happen ( at least on a sustainable basis).

    2.) Eating a high-fat diet so that your appetite is sated, thereby avoiding the insulin response that leads to snacking and all sorts of other bad habits. Paleo does not violate the laws of thermodynamics — you still must burn what you eat or store it as fat! It’s just designed to suppress your appetite.

    3.) Intermittent fasting (and feasting) so that you deplete your bodies supply of glycogen and hence force the body to burn fat. Now, its important to remember that the bulk of research on ketogenesis suggests it takes the average person three weeks to adapt to a fat-burning state, so instant results you’re not going to get.

    Now, based on your exercise let’s say you’ve done 8 hours of slow biking and 3 hours of walking. Even at 500 kcal/hr (a high estimate) that’s ~ 4500 kcal or a pound of fat. If your appetite increased as a result of exercise it’s not hard to envision that you only had a deficit of 2000 kcal and hence that’s what you lost. This is why diet and basal metabolic rate is so important.

    Also keep in mind your weight is going to vary a lot day to day, hour to hour. My body weight easily ranges over 5 lbs depending on: how well hydrated I am, how much sugar and salt I’ve eaten recently, and when I had my last bowel movement.

  13. MzEllen- Almost everyone is in range who is hypoT. Your Ft3 and Ft4 should be at the top of the range with no symptoms. Your morning basal temperature should be around 98.2 and 98.6 in the afternoon. If it’s not, you’re under-treated. TSH is a pretty poor test. If your doc. won’t help you, find a new one. Try a D.O. Endo’s are truely lost!!

  14. Thanks for your answers…tomorrow I’m starting with dumbbells…

    Crystal, my basal temp varies between 97.0 and 97.2.

    Son of Grok…yes, right now I’m focusing a lot on cardio…actually on cycling. My goal is to ride 112 miles over 2 days next month…the reward to be a new Specialized Vita Sport from my Sweetie.


  15. As for the Amish I believe they also eat a LOT of sugar. I live not far from “dutch country” and sooo many of the products the amish bring to market to sell are loaded with sugar, even thier pickles. That said the younger Amish usually appear to be in excellent shape. Perhaps when they get older and slow down a bit the lifetime carb binge rapidly catches up.

  16. I come from a family with many obese people. I was also obese. The sad state of my close relatives’ health is what inspired (or scared) me into changing. Now, I am living proof that with some determination and support and good old fashioned hard work and primal nutrition that obesity can be overcome. I get so many comments and questions in regards to my body transformation. As soon as I say that I “work hard and eat properly” most people grunt and sigh and give up hope right there. Perhaps the “genetic” link is one of irresponsibility and laziness? Why are so many people envious of what I have done and yet won’t do it for themselves?

  17. This just goes to show that sometimes actions can counteract genetics. There is no excuse not to exercise, not even obesity!

    I have found that taking vitamins and supplements are an important part of overall health.

  18. I agree. Regardless of our predisposition to obesity (and some genes must tilt in this direction) we know that if our national eating and exercise habits hadn’t been so appalling, the level of obesity and related disease wouldn’t be like it is. No study is required to understand this better. What is more important is the need to take action for our own benefit and to stop our heath system from imploding!