Physical inactivity is a growing public health problem, and the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. Conversely, indigenous populations living traditional lifestyles reportedly engage in vigorous daily activity that is protective against non-communicable diseases. Here we analyze physical activity patterns among the Tsimane, forager-horticulturalists of Amazonian Bolivia with minimal heart disease and diabetes. We assess age patterns of adult activity among men and women, test whether modernization affects activity levels, and examine whether nascent obesity is associated with reduced activity.
A factorial method based on a large sample of behavioral observations was employed to estimate effects of age, sex, body mass index, and modernization variables on physical activity ratio (PAR), the ratio of total energy expenditure to basal metabolic rate. Accelerometry combined with heart rate monitoring was compared to the factorial method and used for nighttime sampling. Tsimane men and women display 24 hr physical activity level (PAL) of 2.02–2.15 and 1.73–1.85, respectively. Little time was spent “sedentary”, whereas most activity was light to moderate, rather than vigorous. Activity peaks by the late twenties in men, and declines thereafter, but remains constant among women after the early teens. Neither BMI, fat free mass or body fat percentage are associated with PAR. There was no negative effect of modernization on physical activity.
Tsimane display relatively high PALs typical of other subsistence populations, but of moderate intensity, and not outside the range of developed populations. Despite rapidly increasing socioeconomic change, there is little evidence that total activity has yet been affected. Overweight and obesity are more prevalent among women than men, and Spanish fluency is associated with greater obesity in women. The lack of cardiovascular disease among Tsimane is unlikely caused by activity alone; further study of diet, food intake and infectious disease is needed.