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Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
BASIC SCIENCES: Epidemiology

Physical Activity in an Old Order Amish Community

BASSETT, DAVID R. JR.1; SCHNEIDER, PATRICK L.1; HUNTINGTON, GERTRUDE E.2

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Abstract

BASSETT, JR., D. R., P. L. SCHNEIDER, and G. E. HUNTINGTON. Physical Activity in an Old Order Amish Community. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 79–85, 2004. One method to assess the impact of modern technology on physical activity is to examine a group whose lifestyle has not changed markedly in the last 150 yr. The Old Order Amish refrain from driving automobiles, using electrical appliances, and employing other modern conveniences. Labor-intensive farming is still the preferred occupation.

Purpose: The purposes of this study were to characterize the physical activity (PA) levels in an Old Order Amish farming community and to examine measures of adiposity in this group.

Methods: Ninety-eight Amish adults (18–75 yr of age) in southern Ontario were studied. Anthropometric variables included height, weight, body mass index (BMI), and percent body fat (% BF). Participants were asked to wear an electronic pedometer for 7 d and to fill out a log sheet on which they recorded steps per day and physical activities. After 1 wk, they returned the pedometers and log sheets and filled out the International Physical Activity Questionnaire.

Results: The average number of steps per day was 18,425 for men versus 14,196 for women (P < 0.05). Men reported 10.0 h·wk−1 of vigorous PA, 42.8 h·wk−1 of moderate PA, and 12.0 h·wk−1 of walking. Women reported 3.4 h·wk−1 of vigorous PA, 39.2 h·wk−1 of moderate PA, and 5.7 h·wk−1 of walking. Men had higher levels of energy expenditure than women (P < 0.001). A total of 25% of the men and 27% of the women were overweight (BMI ≥ 25), and 0% of the men and 9% of the women were obese (BMI ≥ 30).

Conclusions: The Amish we studied had very high levels of physical activity, which may contribute to their low prevalence of obesity. This group probably represents an upper extreme for “lifestyle PA” in North America today.

Few jobs in modern society require the same high levels of energy expenditure that were required of North American residents 150 yr ago. Although leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) has increased in recent decades (35), this increase has probably not been enough to offset the large decline in occupational physical activity. Thus, researchers have proposed that overall levels of physical activity have declined in recent decades (16,17,25,32).

Indirect evidence suggests that people in modernized societies perform less physical activity than their ancestors (3,30), but the magnitude of the difference is hard to assess. For one thing, improved methods for measuring physical activity were only recently developed, making it hard to study time trends using direct, empirical methods. Many researchers have examined physical activity in modern, industrialized societies, but there is a lack of data on traditional farming communities. Therefore, we were interested in studying a group that uses labor-intensive farming methods and abstains from using modern conveniences such as automobiles, televisions, computers, and dishwashers.

The Amish people are a Protestant group that originated in Switzerland but came to North America in about 1727. Amish communities exist in the United States (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and 22 other states) as well as in Canada (Ontario). The Amish believe in separation from the outside world, as well as simplicity. In their clothing, lifestyle, and religion, the Amish people emphasize humility, nonviolence, and traditional values rather than progress and technology.

In some Amish communities, farming is still the principal occupation. In contrast, only 2% of all North American workers are employed on farms, and machines now perform most of the farm work (9,38). Amish men till the soil with horses, walk or utilize horse-drawn carriages for transportation, and participate in barn raisings. Amish women do most of the childcare, food preparation, cooking, and cleaning. Both men and women raise vegetables in family gardens. The Amish follow rules (Ordnung) that ban the use of gasoline-powered transportation, electricity, and other modern conveniences.

A decline in physical activity is one of several factors being implicated in the tremendous increase in rates of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems in many parts of the world. To provide an indication of the magnitude of these problems, in 2000, the age-adjusted prevalence of obesity (defined as a body mass index ≥ 30.0 kg·m−2, or about 20% above ideal body weight) was 30.5% of U.S. adults (10). (This represents a 61% increase in obesity prevalence since 1991.) The prevalence of diagnosed diabetes mellitus has increased 43% in the same period of time (29).

The main purpose of this study was to examine the influence of modern technology on physical activity. By using a pedometer and a questionnaire, we sought to characterize physical activity levels in an Old Order Amish community. It was thought that this could provide an indication of the magnitude of the decline in physical activity in North America, over the last century and a half. A secondary objective was to examine measures of adiposity in members of this community.

©2004The American College of Sports Medicine

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