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Daily Physical Activity Of Amish Contrasts With Today’s Epidemic Of Obesity: Old Order Amish Six Times More Active than Average Adults

The large decline in work-related physical activity in North America over the past two centuries may be a major contributing factor to the modern obesity epidemic, according to results of a recent study of physical activity and body composition in an Old Order Amish community.

During the study, 98 Amish adults in a southern Ontario farming community wore pedometers and logged their physical activities for seven days. The conservative Amish, known for living without modern technology and conveniences, utilize 19th century farming techniques that require physical labor.

The study was designed to use very accurate, recently developed measurement methods to assess the actual physical activity levels of the study participants to determine how the influence of technology affects physical activity levels in modern society.

A very high level of physical activity is integrated into the daily lives of the Amish, the results of the study found. Amish men, who mostly work as farmers, reported an average of 10 hours of vigorous work per week and took an average of 18,425 steps a day.

One man recorded more than 51,000 steps in a single day by walking behind a team of horses while farming. Women, most of whom report being homemakers, engaged in more moderateforms of activity such as gardening, cooking, and childcare, but still achieved an average of 14,196 daily steps.

Other forms of physical activity performed were determined and quantified by the questionnaire, which asked the participants to record three physical activities they performed each day. On average, the Amish participated in roughly six times the amount of weekly physical activity performed by nearly 2,000 participants in a recent survey in 12 modernized nations.

"The Amish were able to show us just how far we’ve fallen in the last 150 years or so in terms of the amount of physical activity we typically perform," said David R. Bassett, Ph.D., FACSM, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and lead researcher for the study. "Their lifestyle indicates that physical activity played a critical role in keeping our ancestors fit and healthy."

The Amish participants also were weighed and measured for height to determine their Body Mass Index (BMI). Results indicate that only four percent of those surveyed were obese and only 26 percent were overweight, as determined by their BMI. This compares most favorably to the prevalence of these classifications in the United States, where 31 percent of the adult population is obese and 64.5 percent is overweight.

Body fat measurements also were taken and the results were inversely related to the average steps per day. Each Amish participant met the criteria of at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day, most days of the week, recommended by ACSM and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"It is unreasonable to suggest that we return to a lifestyle where vigorous physical activity dominates our workplace," said Bassett. "What we should do is realize through this study that the modern environment has changed for the worst in terms of promoting activity and good health. It will be up to each of us to adapt to this reality by finding new opportunities to become and stay active."

Another lifestyle factor often linked to obesity is diet. Interestingly, researchers observe that the Amish diet is typically high in calories, fat and refined sugar. Foods typically include meat, potatoes, gravy, eggs, vegetables, bread, pies, and cakes.

This suggests Amish adults are able to maintain a more ideal body weight through physical activity, despite high levels of caloric intake.

The study, published in the January edition of Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise®, the official scientific journal of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM.)

The American College of Sports Medicine is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. More than 20,000 International, National, and Regional members are dedicated to advancing and integrating scientific research to provide educational and practical applications of exercise science and sports medicine.

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