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Don't blame genes, blame lifestyle

Published April 02. 2011 09:00AM

Do you do what too many people do? Kowtow to partial truth and transform it into an absolute.

It's more common than you might imagine, for treating a partial truth as an absolute is comforting. It provides closure and means that there's no more thinking to do.

Unfortunately, that creates close-mindedness and sometimes something else: compromised health.

I'm pontificating like this because a couple of casual acquaintances have recently explained to me why they're carrying extra weight with the same two words. "It's genetic," they both said.

Since they are casual acquaintances, I bit my tongue, but here's what I would've said to friends to challenge their negative spin on genetics: "So why don't you run marathons then?"

No, that's not a non-sequitur. It's called the Running Man Theory and according to a fine article written by David Fleming for the February 21 issue of ESPN Magazine it goes something like this: running long distances is more than an ability humans possess; it's the defining factor that makes us human.

In other words, humans evolved into "endurance predators" in order to survive. To support this hypothesis, Fleming cites research that shows the human body has 26 unique characteristics that make it well-suited for the long-distance running required to chase prey to the point of collapse.

Although we share more than 95 percent of our DNA with chimps, their legs and feet do not have the "springlike" ligaments and tendons that help us run and run. Their glute muscles are not nearly as big as ours, and these ample muscles serve as far more than a seat cushion; when we run, they create a counterbalance to keep us from falling.

Additionally, Fleming writes that "our short toes are perfect for running. If they were just 20 percent longer, we'd need twice the amount of energy just to push and lift our feet off the ground."

And finally, our sweat glands allow us to run, breathe, and cool ourselves far better than quick-chase predators like cats and dogs. Being able to do all three concurrently is akin to an "evolutionary royal flush," allowing still-exisiting running tribes to chase animals for hours in the African desert, no less! until they reach the point of death.

So it seems as if our genetics make us the perfect long-distance running machine. Why then does less than one sixtieth of the U.S. population ever run a marathon?

Because having good genetics is like than having a good teacher. A good teacher simply increases the odds that you'll learn. Similarly, having bad genes simply increases the likelihood that you'll carry extra weight.

It's a predisposition. Nothing more. Yet many weak-willed people allow this fact to become fate.

So be strong, battle your body's inclination to add fat, and you'll feel much better both physically and mentally as a result. But more importantly, you'll be like that good teacher increasing the likelihood that your children battle rather surrender to bad genes.

While that would be a great help, surprisingly enough, research published in last December's issue of The American Heart Journal shows that a poor genetic predisposition is not the reason why kids are becoming obese at an alarming rate. Lifestyle is.

University of Michigan Medical School researchers were given access to detailed health records of over 1,000 Michigan sixth-graders. The records showed that the kids already considered obese watched more television, exercised less, ate more food and a lower percentage of packed lunches during school than the kids of a normal weight.

Taylor Engle, first author for the Michigan research team, said the following about the clear differences between the obese and the normal-weight kids in a interview for Medical News Today: "If diets and physical activity were similar in the obese and non-obese students, this would argue for a stronger genetic basis for obesity in children." But since the differences were so quantifiable, it's clear that in the majority of cases childhood obesity is created by bad habits, not bad genes.

Yet those parents whose children are currently a healthy weight still need to stress good habits. After all, the rate of overweight American adults is currently more than triple that of obese children.

In other words, many only begin the battle of the bulge as adults.

And the Michigan study found that only one third of all the students in the study had exercised for 30 minutes on five different occasions during the last week and that the majority of the students could not remember eating two portions of fruits and vegetables in the last 24 hours.

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