• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 26th April, 2007

Of genes and gyms: what new research says about obesity

The findings from a study of diabetes among English schoolchildren are throwing into question UK Government health policy that aims to increase the amount of time in and out of school set aside for sport and other physical exercise. The research at the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth also finds itself running into severe cash trouble — some reports describe it as being on the verge of collapse — when the strategy it is scrutinizing is being backed by a hefty $2.9bn public subsidy. The Early Bird Diabetes study led by Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Terry Wilkin, is following 307 children and their families from primary school into adulthood. The aim is to chart the factors associated with type 2 diabetes, taking into account the influence of genetics, metabolism and physical exercise. Awkwardly for the sports lobby, early results suggest that the amount of exercise children take is more strongly influenced by genetics than any lack of access to leisure facilities or attraction to computer games. Some children, it seems, are driven to take more exercise than others. If they need to, they find a way discharge their energy, in or out school, where there are purpose-built facilities or none. The Early Bird team also question the assumption among a generation of parents who remember life before games consoles that children are less energetic than they used to be. If the results are correct, the link between sports and other high energy activity and high body mass index (with a consequent risk of later diabetes) must be in some doubt. Such possibilities are inconvenient for the UK government whose present policy is more geared to investing in sport than attending to the national diet. In 2006, $2.9bn was found to create a sustainable structure for school sport in England. The idea is for parents and teachers to join forces to persuade children away from computer games and into sport other physical activity. The target is for all children to have at least two to three additional hours of sport outside of school by 2010. background on Early BirdThe Early Bird Diabetes Study follows 307 children (137 girls and 170 boys) from 54 primary schools in the city of Plymouth, UK. The children have been followed from the point they began primary school (mean age 4.9 years) in the 2000-2001 school year. The aim of the study is to chart the childhood correlates of type 2 diabetes. Candidates include physiology, physical activity, genetics and metabolism. Measures of the proportions (height, weight, body fat et cetera) of the children's bodies and their blood pressure are repeated at six-monthly intervals; other tests are taken every 12 months. There has been measurement of parent's BMI at base-line, and a single blood sample taken for DNA, insulin resistance and markers of the metabolic syndrome. The study uses accelerometers, a device that provides precise information on the physical activity of children. They sample movement 600 times a minute, register the clock time, duration and intensity of each movement, and generate a detailed ay in the life' graph for each child. Accelerometers are worn around the waist.Michael Little

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