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The solution to North America’s epidemic of childhood obesity could be as simple as looking to the past.

By Andre Picard Posted Jan 27, 2009

That is the suggestion of researchers who compared activity and obesity levels among Old Order Mennonite children with their peers living in contemporary Canadian society.

The Mennonites — who live an agrarian lifestyle with few modern conveniences — were fitter, stronger and leaner despite the fact that they do not have physical education in schools or any organized recreational activities.

What they do have, however, is walks to school, daily chores and playtime that is free of television, Game Boys and other amenities.

“When we talk about the obesity epidemic, the solutions put forward always seem to revolve around institutional measures like more phys ed and more sports facilities,” Dr. Mark Tremblay, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, said in an interview.

“But what struck me about the Old Order Mennonites is that activity is embedded into their lifestyles. They don’t change into their exercise clothes and jump on the Stairmaster. They just go about their lives.”

Dr. Tremblay said this led him to conclude that the answer to the bedevilling problem of ever-fatter, ever-more-inactive children may lie in the past.

The researcher said this does not mean everyone has to live exactly as their forebears did a century ago, but they need to retain the important message that, to be healthy, activity needs to be an integral part of daily life.

“The approaches we’re taking to promoting physical activity are not working because they’re so artificial,” Dr. Tremblay said.

The research, to be published in the journal Medicine and Science and Sports and Exercise examined the activity levels and physical characteristics of 124 Old Order Mennonite children from Southern Ontario, 110 urban Saskatchewan children and 165 rural Saskatchewan children. They were all 8 to 13 years old.

Children in all three groups had a similar body mass index (an approximation of body fat based on height and weight), and about 30 per cent were considered overweight.

The Mennonite children, however, scored better on virtually all tests of fitness. A skin-fold test showed they are leaner and more muscular. Tests that measured grip strength and ability to do push-ups showed they were stronger. And an aerobic test showed the Mennonite children had greater endurance.

Researchers found that all the children in the study were highly active, with almost three hours of activity daily on average.

According to Canada’s Physical Activity Guide for Children and Youth, young people should get 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity daily. But Dr. Tremblay said the new research suggests this is probably inadequate.

In the study, Mennonite children averaged about 18 minutes more physical activity daily than contemporary Canadian children — and it was probably more vigorous, though the research did not measure intensity.

According to the article, those 18 minutes of activity translate into an additional 15,000 kilocalories of energy burned every year, which (all other things being equal) would translate into 40 pounds of fat per person over a decade.

Dr. Tremblay noted that the Saskatchewan schools that participated in the research are award-winning institutions recognized for their promotion of physical activity. At the same time, among the Mennonites, the children who did not participate tended to be from more fundamentalist families and they were probably more active. The result is that the research likely underestimates the true size of the gap between the physical activity of Mennonite and contemporary Canadian children.

The researchers plan to follow the children as they grow up. In modern Canadian society, physical activity tends to fall off precipitously in adolescence, particularly among girls.

By contrast, most Old Order Mennonites stop their schooling after Grade 8 and take up farming full-time, so their activity levels rise sharply.

Research published last year showed that Old Order Amish — a related religious group that also shuns technology — have an obesity rate of only 4 per cent, compared to 15 per cent in mainstream Canada.

Their secret appears to be lots of walking. Amish men walk an average of 18,425 steps daily, and women average 14,196 steps.

Studies done in mainstream Canada show that adults tend to log around 2,000 to 3,000 steps a day.

Both Mennonites and Amish have extremely low rates of heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases linked to a modern, sedentary lifestyle.

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