UCSB Anthropologists Study Effects of Modernization on Physical Activity and Heart Disease Among Amerindian Men and Women

Among the Tsimane, an indigenous population in the lowlands of Bolivia’s Amazon basin, however, indicators of heart disease are practically non-existent — cholesterol is low, obesity is rare, and smoking is uncommon.

That’s according to researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the University of New Mexico, who have been studying hunter-gatherers and forager-horticulturists to understand how their physical activity levels are affected by modernization; whether that, in turn, has increased the incidence of obesity, hypertension, and other conditions related to heart disease; and how their findings might apply to adults in the U.S. Their research is highlighted in an article published today in the journal PLoS ONE.

The simple answer, according to Michael Gurven, professor of anthropology at UCSB and lead author of the study, is that physical activity alone — or lack thereof — does not relate to obesity or body fat among the Tsimane, and despite a subsistence lifestyle, activity alone is unlikely to account for their relative absence of chronic disease. As Gurven noted, the research demonstrates that, although a high level of physical activity may be important in staving off heart disease and diabetes, it’s unlikely to be the “magic bullet” that explains why a group like the Tsimane maintains a healthy chronic disease profile.

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