Assessing Causality in the Association between Child Adiposity and Physical Activity Levels: A Mendelian Randomization Analysis

Rebecca C. Richmond*, George Davey Smith, Andy R. Ness, Marcel den Hoed, George McMahon, Nicholas J. Timpson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

95 Citations (Scopus)
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Abstract

Background

Cross-sectional studies have shown that objectively measured physical activity is associated with childhood adiposity, and a strong inverse dose-response association with body mass index (BMI) has been found. However, few studies have explored the extent to which this association reflects reverse causation. We aimed to determine whether childhood adiposity causally influences levels of physical activity using genetic variants reliably associated with adiposity to estimate causal effects.

Methods and Findings

The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children collected data on objectively assessed activity levels of 4,296 children at age 11 y with recorded BMI and genotypic data. We used 32 established genetic correlates of BMI combined in a weighted allelic score as an instrumental variable for adiposity to estimate the causal effect of adiposity on activity.

In observational analysis, a 3.3 kg/m(2) (one standard deviation) higher BMI was associated with 22.3 (95% CI, 17.0, 27.6) movement counts/min less total physical activity (p = 1.6x10(-16)), 2.6 (2.1, 3.1) min/d less moderate-to-vigorous-intensity activity (p = 3.7x10(-29)), and 3.5 (1.5, 5.5) min/d more sedentary time (p = 5.0x10(-4)). In Mendelian randomization analyses, the same difference in BMI was associated with 32.4 (0.9, 63.9) movement counts/min less total physical activity (p = 0.04) (similar to 5.3% of the mean counts/minute), 2.8 (0.1, 5.5) min/d less moderate-to-vigorous-intensity activity (p = 0.04), and 13.2 (1.3, 25.2) min/d more sedentary time (p = 0.03). There was no strong evidence for a difference between variable estimates from observational estimates. Similar results were obtained using fat mass index. Low power and poor instrumentation of activity limited causal analysis of the influence of physical activity on BMI.

Conclusions

Our results suggest that increased adiposity causes a reduction in physical activity in children and support research into the targeting of BMI in efforts to increase childhood activity levels. Importantly, this does not exclude lower physical activity also leading to increased adiposity, i.e., bidirectional causation.

Please see later in the article for the

Editors' Summary

Editors' Summary

Background

The World Health Organization estimates that globally at least 42 million children under the age of five are obese. The World Health Organization recommends that all children undertake at least one hour of physical activity daily, on the basis that increased physical activity will reduce or prevent excessive weight gain in children and adolescents. In practice, while numerous studies have shown that body mass index (BMI) shows a strong inverse correlation with physical activity (i.e., active children are thinner than sedentary ones), exercise programs specifically targeted at obese children have had only very limited success in reducing weight. The reasons for this are not clear, although environmental factors such as watching television and lack of exercise facilities are traditionally blamed.

Why Was This Study Done? ?

One of the reasons why obese children do not lose weight through exercise might be that being fat in itself leads to a decrease in physical activity. This is termed reverse causation, i.e.

, obesity causes sedentary behavior, rather than the other way around. The potential influence of environmental factors (e.g., lack of opportunity to exercise) makes it difficult to prove this argument. Recent research has demonstrated that specific genotypes are related to obesity in children. Specific variations within the DNA of individual genes (single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs) are more common in obese individuals and predispose to greater adiposity across the weight distribution. While adiposity itself can be influenced by many environmental factors that complicate the interpretation of observed associations, at the population level, genetic variation is not related to the same factors, and over the life course cannot be changed. Investigations that exploit these properties of genetic associations to inform the interpretation of observed associations are termed Mendelian randomization studies. This research technique is used to reduce the influence of confounding environmental factors on an observed clinical condition. The authors of this study use Mendelian randomization to determine whether a genetic tendency towards high BMI and fat mass is correlated with reduced levels of physical activity in a large cohort of children.

What Did the Researchers Do and Find? ?

The researchers looked at a cohort of children from a large long-term health research project (the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children). BMI and total body fat were recorded. Total daily activity was measured via a small movement-counting device. In addition, the participants underwent genotyping to detect the presence of several SNPs known to be linked to obesity. For each child a total BMI allelic score was determined based on the number of obesity-related genetic variants carried by that individual. The association between obesity and reduced physical activity was then studied in two ways. Direct correlation between actual BMI and physical activity was measured (observational data). Separately, the link between BMI allelic score and physical activity was also determined (Mendelian randomization or instrumental variable analysis). The observational data showed that boys were more active than girls and had lower BMI. Across both sexes, a higher-than-average BMI was associated with lower daily activity. In genetic analyses, allelic score had a positive correlation with BMI, with one particular SNP being most strongly linked to high BMI and total fat mass. A high allelic score for BMI was also correlated with lower levels of daily physical activity. The authors conclude that children who are obese and have an inherent predisposition to high BMI also have a propensity to reduced levels of physical activity, which may compound their weight gain.

What Do These Findings Mean? ?

This study provides evidence that being fat is in itself a risk factor for low activity levels, separately from external environmental influences. This may be an example of "reverse causation," i.e., high BMI causes a reduction in physical activity. Alternatively, there may be a bidirectional causality, so that those with a genetic predisposition to high fat mass exercise less, leading to higher BMI, and so on, in a vicious circle. A significant limitation of the study is that validated allelic scores for physical activity are not available. Thus, it is not possible to determine whether individuals with a high allelic score for BMI also have a propensity to exercise less, or whether it is simply the circumstance of being overweight that discourages activity.

This study does suggest that trying to persuade obese children to lose weight by exercising more is likely to be ineffective unless additional strategies to reduce BMI, such as strict diet control, are also implemented.

Additional Information

Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001618.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides obesity-related statistics, details of prevention programs, and an overview on public health strategy in the United States

A more worldwide view is given by the World Health Organization

The UK National Health Service website gives information on physical activity guidelines for different age groups

The International Obesity Task Force is a network of organizations that seeks to alert the world to the growing health crisis threatened by soaring levels of obesity

MedlinePlus-which brings together authoritative information from the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, and other government agencies and health-related organizations-has a page on obesity

Additional information on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children is available

The British Medical Journal has an article that describes Mendelian randomization

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1001618
Number of pages16
JournalPLoS Medicine
Volume11
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 18 Mar 2014

Keywords

  • GENOME-WIDE ASSOCIATION
  • BODY-MASS INDEX
  • CARDIOVASCULAR RISK-FACTORS
  • INSTRUMENTAL VARIABLES
  • BLOOD-PRESSURE
  • FAT MASS
  • OBESITY
  • ADOLESCENTS
  • POPULATION
  • YOUTH

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