Just What the Doctor Ordered


When it comes to exercise, UT geneticist Molly Bray doesn’t believe in the old adage that something is better than nothing. She argues that mentality can do more damage than good when attempts at losing weight elicit little results, leading people to say “exercise just doesn’t work for me.”

Bray and a group of researchers published a report in the January issue of the journal Obesity predicting that within the next five years, people looking to lose weight will have the ability to use workouts tailored specifically to their genetic makeup.

The summary report discusses a method called “precision weight loss,” which uses an individual’s genetic data to customize diets and physical activity plans. It stems from a workshop by the National Institutes of Health in 2014 named “Genes, Behaviors, and Response to Weight Loss Interventions,” during which Bray and other experts were asked to summarize what they knew about genes’ abilities to predict or influence weight loss.

“Genes influence body size,” she says. “What hasn’t been tested well is how they influence changes in weight loss—that’s the key. Obesity is a really big problem and we need to figure out why we can’t seem to solve it.”

According to the report, which offered an overview of existing research, the prevalence of obesity in the United States and other Western countries has risen sharply in the last few years. The researchers point out that while obesity coincides with environmental factors such as the rise of highly processed foods and lower activity levels, there is still a portion of the population that retains normal weight. They say this suggests people’s responses to the environment differ based on innate factors, such as their genetic makeup.

Bray says in the not-so-distant future, it won’t be far-fetched to think of a patient submitting a blood sample to collect information about factors such as their environment, diet, activity and stress. “Then, you could take an algorithm and possibly design something more personalized than the standards not everybody responds to,” she says.

Bray and her peers are getting ready to publish their own study related to genes and exercise. For the past 12 years, they conducted an exercise intervention that took young adults and put them through 15 weeks of exercise training, allowing the researchers to examine a large set of genes for predicting weight loss. Much of their work focuses on a gene called FTO, a fat mass and obesity-associated protein,  which has been shown to be associated with body mass index. Brays says what’s interesting is that the gene seems to be predictive of whether or not people will stick to an exercise routine.

As a person exercised, the researchers would examine the pleasure centers of the brain. If the genes in the area lit up, it meant the person was more predisposed to stay committed to working out.  

Bray says studies in precision weight loss are important because they help encourage people to do more. Many people assume if a patient is told they have a genotype that predisposes them to obesity or an inability to stick with a regimen, then they’d give up. But in her experience, that hasn’t been the case.

“When people hear that genes may be playing a role in their weight loss success, they don’t say, ‘Oh great, I just won’t exercise any more,'” Bray said in a UT news release. “They actually say ‘Oh thank you. Finally someone acknowledges that it’s harder work for me than it is for others.’


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