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‘It is spring, and I’m the hunter’

By Staff | Jul 29, 2011

In my opinion these are the only truths in science: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Theodosius Dobzhansky, and “The truth changes,” author unknown.

I usually write about the benefits of healthier running, and this month I will explore a topic which lends even more credence to why every human should learn to run or walk a lot.

The sad but not surprising news from the 2011 “F as in Fat” report (healthyamericans.org/report/88/) from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been released, and yes, America is getting fatter.

Some lowlights:

Twenty years ago, no state had an obesity rate above 15 percent. Today, more than two out of three states, 38 total, have obesity rates over 25 percent, and just one has a rate lower than 20 percent.

Four years ago, only one state was above 30 percent. Twelve states now have obesity rates above 30 percent.

Today, the state with the lowest obesity rate would have had the highest rate in 1995.

The rate of all chronic disease and associated medical costs are rising rapidly in the same trajectory.

West Virginia is the No. 3 state for adult obesity weighing in at 32 percent.

My friend from Japan, Dr. Hiro Tanaka, chair of Exercise Physiology at the University of Fukuoka, visited Shepherdstown last month for our Running Injury Prevention Conference. He has written two books in Japanese translated as “Run with Smile” and “Run Marathon Wisely, Reduce Body Weight, and Forefoot Strike.” So what does this have to do with obesity? At age 46, Dr. Tanaka was obese with fatty liver, and as an exercise physiologist he set out to be his own experiment.

He realized to lose weight, the running motion, even if very slow, burned nearly twice as many calories as walking. Almost as important was the running motion he used, the gentle forefoot landing, trained his body in optimal biomechanics to allow him to run faster and longer without injury. Running became a “practice” for Dr. Tanaka, and he went on to run a 2:38 marathon at age 50, reducing 25 percent of his body weight in the process.

Dr. Tanaka concluded his talk with his current work on gene expression, a field called Epigenetics, discovery that the human genome actually changes in response to the environment and how we live in it.

The findings were first published in the premier journal Naturein 2008 and showed the experiments with mice. The results were identical twins becoming genetically different when one lived the life of the “hibernator” and the other the “hunter.” Yes, these identical twins were now genetically different. The healthy habit mouse was trim and vigorous. The inactive mouse with poor nutrition became sick, sluggish and obese. Dr. Tanaka chooses to be a “hunter.”

Simple sugars and a lack of activity are the primary culprits in what we currently understand about adverse gene expression. So why is this important to you and your children? The high intake of simple sugar combined with a lifestyle of convenience has been in existence for less than a generation. America and the world will continue to fail unless we discover and attack the root causes of obesity, which may be at the genetic level. Even Italy now has an obesity epidemic where they have adopted a Western lifestyle.

But are you doomed if obesity is in your genes? This may be true, but you can modify your genes to become the “hunter.” This is beyond getting rid of Coke in schools or adding 30 minutes of activity or some other arbitrary number of steps to your day. One must awaken with the feeling that they are the hunter and it is spring – move all day, eat fresh and lean and trick your body that you are existing in a world of challenge.

Now 63 Dr. Tanaka completed a marathon in 3:08, a time achievable by less than 1 percent of runners even half his age. In the lab he is cracking the genetic code of how he is still able to do this “with a smile.” The genes expressed with the “hunter” behavior may also affect mood. In my 20 years of medicine I cannot recall a patient who was running everyday with joyand still depressed. Among the sedentary, we are quick to diagnose the abnormal mood in isolation of the other lifestyle factors and prescribe a medication.

High on the “F as in Fat” report’s recommendations to reverse this trend are grassroots advocacy efforts. This is our mission at Freedom’s Run and Two Rivers Treads. Get folks outside moving, teach our families to eat real food, and get out of the modern sitting environment.

So if every human woke up in the morning and said to themselves, “It’s spring, and I’m a Hunter,” then maybe our obesity epidemic can be addressed and, yes, modified at the genetic level.