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Want to fend off obesity? Do as the Amish

Forget the standard-issue health and fitness resolutions that include joining a gym, going to yoga and trading meatball subs for white-meat turkey. It may just be that the best way to get in shape is to plow the back 40, toss a few bales of hay and wash buckets of wet clothes by hand.

Call it the Amish paradox. An exercise science professor has discovered that a pocket of Old Order Amish folks in Ontario has stunningly low obesity levels, despite a diet high in fat, calories and refined sugar _ exactly the stuff doctors tell us not to eat.

They're at a paltry 4 percent obesity rate, compared with a whopping 31 percent in the general U.S. population. This group of Amish manages to keep its overweight levels low despite a diet that includes meat, potatoes, gravy, cakes, pies and eggs. So what's their secret? Exercise.

For starters, of the 98 Amish pedometer-wearing adults surveyed over a week, men averaged about 18,000 steps a day, women about 14,000.

Amish men spent about 10 hours a week doing vigorous activities, women about 3{ hours (heavy lifting, shoveling or digging, shoeing horses, tossing straw bales). Men averaged 43 hours of moderate activity a week, women about 39 hours (gardening, feeding farm animals, doing laundry).

Lead researcher David R. Bassett Jr., professor of exercise science at the University of Tennessee, conducted the study to look at changes in physical activity from a historical perspective.

He chose this population of Amish for their adherence to a physically demanding farming lifestyle and rejection of things technical, such as automobiles and electricity.

Higher rates of obesity exist in other North American Amish communities that have moved away from farming and segued into less strenuous occupations such as woodworking and quilting, according to the study. Amish men in Holmes County, Ohio, for example, had rates of obesity similar to non-Amish men; Amish women had higher rates, attributed to multiple pregnancies, diet and greater acceptance of overweight physiques.

The study presents a dim ray of hope in a sea of bad news about the country's climbing obesity rates. But there's a big reality check here: The vast majority of people can't possibly replicate the way the Amish live.

It's not just the exercise that separates us from the Amish. Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, points out that their meals don't consist of leftover pizza eaten while standing up and talking on the phone.

Bassett says the meals he ate with the Amish consisted of stick-to-your-ribs foods such as pancakes, eggs, ham, cake and milk, but also fresh fruits and vegetables at almost every noon and evening meal. Snacking is practically nonexistent, just three squares a day, although the Amish do sometimes eat at fast-food restaurants when traveling.

Amish communities are small and structured to encourage walking. Judith Stern, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Obesity Association, says the modern world is designed to make us more efficient, meaning we move less and get fatter.

Though the Amish choose to exist largely apart from the rest of the population, they are not unaware of how the other 99.9 percent lives.

Bassett remembers a comment from an Amish man who said that when venturing into town, he can't help noticing the amount of overweight people. Says Bassett, "The man said, "Maybe they have it a little too easy.' They've definitely noticed the same things we have, only from a different perspective."