Your genes tell you a lot: The color of your eyes, your height, what foods you might like and, of course, what health conditions you might encounter. But just because your genes put you at risk of a certain health concern — say, obesity — doesn't mean all hope is lost.
According to an August 2019 study published in the journal PLOS Genetics, six different forms of physical exercise can help combat genetic obesity risk factors. And walking made the list!
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The researchers assessed the effect 18 different types of exercise (including or Dance Dance Revolution!) had on more than 18,000 Han Chinese adults aged 30 to 70 and tracked five different obesity measures: body mass index (BMI), waist circumference (WC), hip circumference (HC), body fat percentage (BFP) and waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). Walking, power walking, jogging, mountain climbing, dancing and long-form yoga lessened the effects of a genetic predisposition for obesity. And these workouts made the biggest difference when it came to BMI, considered to be an indicator of high body fat (although an imperfect one).
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Curious why higher-intensity exercises, such as cycling, didn't make the list? "These exercises require less energy expenditure than the six exercises that demonstrate attenuation on obesity predisposition," lead researcher Lin Wan-Yu, PhD, associate professor at National Taiwan University, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The Genetics of Obesity
Obesity affects 93.3 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genetic, social and lifestyle factors — such as where a person lives, how active they are, their income and what they eat — increase a person's risk of obesity. And the condition can in turn make diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer more likely.
While the six types of workouts identified in the PLOS Genetics study may make a difference on a genetic level, any type of physical activity will set you on the path toward a healthier weight, body and mindset, says Mathew Forzaglia, fitness professional and creator of In Time Fitness. "Whatever you do, you just want to slowly build up," he says. "The body is fragile, especially when it's carrying a lot of weight around and the joints aren't stable or protected."
These exercises can help you lower your chances of obesity, according to the new research. Here's why — and how to get started.
Walking helped lower the genetic effects on BMI among those predisposed to obesity in the new research. And the best news is that starting to walk more is just about as simple as it sounds!
However, the key to success is to have a game plan: Try setting a daily goal, such as hitting 10,000 steps a day, to keep you accountable to your routine. You can walk just about anywhere — to work, around your office building, to the train or bus or around the park.
Walking is a low-impact exercise that can minimize stress on the joints for those who have overweight or obesity, says Ian Creighton, a certified personal trainer based in New York City. "Start out with easy walking for about five minutes, five days a week," he suggests. "Every week, add five minutes, until you've built up to about 35 to 40 minutes per walk." Once you've mastered this strategy, you can use it to work your way up to power walking, and then jogging, he says.
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2. Power Walking
The next step up from walking is power walking, a more amped up version of your typical stroll around the block, which also was found to alter the genetic effects on BMI.
Because power walking is a more demanding, exaggerated movement, especially on the ankles, it can add more impact for those who have obesity, Forzaglia recommends making the switch only when you feel completely secure in your walking.
"For power walking, think about swinging your arms from your elbows, to create a forward-and-back motion as opposed to swinging your arms across your body," Forzaglia says. "For legs, we want a natural stride where we aren't forcing our legs out in front of us. We can just keep one foot in front of the other, allowing us to create momentum."
Jogging is next on the docket once you've mastered power walking. In the new research, it seemed to show the biggest benefit in reducing obesity risk, especially lessening the power of genes on BMI, BFP and HC.
Picking up the pace makes jogging higher-impact than walking, which means it requires a little extra care. "In order to keep joints healthy, I suggest wearing a shoe with a bit more support and cushion in the heel," says Forzaglia.
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4. Mountain Climbing
As Miley Cyrus says, "It's the climb." According to the study, mountain climbing helped fight genetic effects on BMI in study participants. There's no reason to be afraid of a hill — you can have fun with incline! If you know of a park path or short hike near you, that's a great place to start, then slowly add hillier inclines, says Creighton.
If you don't have mountains close by, up the incline on the treadmill when you're walking, says Forzaglia. "It helps to get used to the movement and understand what the body feels like under the strain," he says. "Over time, incline will raise the heart rate even though you aren't moving fast, but it will still give you the stimulus we want introducing you to higher-intensity."
Technically, the new study determined international standard dancing, a type of ballroom dance, helped reduce the effects of genes on BMI. But whether you're into hip-hop, jazz or prefer a good Ariana Grande song, getting in a some choreography is great for your health.
Spins, jumps or shuffles may place strain on your knees and ankles if you are carrying a little extra weight, so make sure to wear shoes that help stabilize, suggests Forzaglia. "Some dance classes incorporate squats and lunges or other body-weight movements, which is helpful," he says. "But I think dance is great for building stability around the joints and core while getting people to move."
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Good news for yogis: According to the new research, engaging in a longish yoga practice (think, about an hour) had a stronger effect in lowering genetic effects on BMI in study participants than walking.
Yes, yoga can feel slower-paced than a running or mountain-climbing workout. But that doesn't mean you won't reap fitness benefits. "Yoga is helpful to help build strength," says Forzaglia. "Holding different positions will help you build a strong core and mobility."