In Sub-Saharan African countries, rapid urbanization and increasing socio-economic status are associated with a transition to decreased physical activity (PA). A more sedentary lifestyle is linked to increased body fat leading to increments in leptin levels. Since rodent and human studies in high-income countries have shown that starvation-induced hypoleptinemia triggers high PA, efforts are warranted to pursue the hypothesis that low leptin levels in lean children of low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) are also associated with high PA.
In this cross-sectional study, we assessed seven-day PA with triaxial accelerometry (ActiGraph GT3X) among 223 primary school children (9 to 12 years of age) in rural Tanzania. Moderate-to-vigorous PA (MVPA) and total accelerometer counts per day were outcome variables. Leptin was determined using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay tests from dried blood spots. Anthropometric assessments were conducted and food insecurity and socio-demographic data were gathered using semi-structured interviews.
In this sample of school children in rural Tanzania, leptin concentrations (median: 0.91 ng/mL, P25: 0.55, P75: 1.69), body mass index z-scores (median: -1.35, P25: -1.93, P75: -0.82), and height-for-age-z-scores (median: -1.16, P25: -1.96, P75: -0.61) were low. In contrast, PA levels were high with a median MVPA time of 119 min/day. Linear regression confirmed that leptin levels were negatively associated with MVPA (beta: -18.1; 95%CI: -29.7; -6.5; p = 0.002) and total accelerometer counts (beta: -90,256; 95%CI: -154,146; -26,365; p = 0.006). Children residing in areas with better infrastructure had lower MVPA levels (p < 0.001) and tended to have higher leptin levels (p = 0.062) than children residing in areas only reachable via dirt roads.
Our cross-sectional field study is the first that supports the hypothesis of low leptin levels as a potential endocrine trigger of high PA in lean children of a LMIC. We observed early signs of a PA transition towards a less active lifestyle in a subgroup residing in areas with better infrastructure that concomitantly tended to have higher leptin concentrations. Considering that area-dependent PA differences were more pronounced among girls than boys, whereas differences in leptin levels were less pronounced, not only biological, but also external factors explain PA transition.
Senior Scientist, CHEO Research Institute