Why getting mountain ‘high’ could be a good way to prevent obesity

Obesity is about much more than carrying a little ‘adipose tissue’ – the euphemistic term doctors use for  too much fat on your bones. It’s a  medical condition that ups your risk of serious health problems, including diabetes and heart disease, that can significantly shorten your life. Obesity is epidemic in South Africa as it is in many other countries. Now US scientists say that living at high altitude is one way to beat it. I’ve started trying out the medicine on mountains at high altitude surrounding a tiny Victorian village in one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa. MS

By Marika Sboros

Rhodes village
The high altitude in Rhodes village and surrounding mountains could help people control their weight. Picture: BRUCE COHEN

I’ve been getting “high” in the mountains surrounding one of South Africa’s best kept “secrets”: the Victorian-era village of Rhodes. I haven’t been smoking anything illegal here – just indulging in a new form of weight control recommended by US scientists: spending time at high altitude.

The researchers, from the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine,  base the recommendation on findings of their new six-year study of 98 000 military personnel moving between locations at low and high altitudes, published in the April issue of PLoS (Public Library of Science) One.

The study, led by Dr Jameson Voss, looks at an innovative way to beat obesity. After adjusting for variables including age, race, sex and BMI (body mass index) at enlistment, it showed that overweight personnel living at high altitude were 41% less likely to become obese than those living at low altitude. It builds on a growing body of research in the general population using a process that is “easily reproducible”, and an earlier study by Voss and colleagues showing that compared to low altitude, living at high altitude gives people a four- to five-fold better chance of “not progressing to obesity”, as the researchers quaintly put it.

I couldn’t think of a better place to get regular doses of anti-obesity or any other kind of medicine, than this remote and beautiful part of the world, which I’ve always felt instinctively is a healing place.

Rhodes lies in the northern most area of the Eastern Cape highlands, on the border of Lesotho, wrapped in the embrace of mountains known in Zulu as uKhahlamba (barrier of spears) and in Afrikaans as Drakensberg (dragon back mountain). The mountains are part  of the highest range in Southern Africa that makes up the Great Escarpment, a major geological formation on the African  continent  dating back around 180 million years ago.

In South Africa, the uKhahlamba/Drakensberg mountains stretch for more than 1000km from the southwest to northeast of country, peaking at 3 475m. Close to Rhodes village is the imposing Ben Macdhui mountain. It takes its name from the Scottish mountain that is Britain’s second highest peak, and peaks at 3000m.

You don’t have to climb up “Ben Mac”, as the locals affectionately call it, to reach the dizzying heights scientists say will help you beat obesity, though  expending all that energy is helpful for weight control. You can just drive up the mountain, hop out your car, and spend time breathing in the hypoxic (low oxygen) air at high altitude. The scientists speculate that’s  helps you to prevent obesity with its attendant health risks, that include diabetes and heart disease,  because leptin and other hormones involved in appetite control are known to rise at high altitude.

Of course, the research is all about living at high altitude, not just making the occasional pit spot on exquisite mountain tops. And there  are the usual caveats: correlation does not prove causation, and more research is needed to confirm the study findings.

Still, as Voss notes in a blog on his earlier research with colleagues, published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2013, it is well-established that  hypoxia causes anorexia and weight loss based on well controlled interventional data. This effect is “biologically plausible based on the relationship between hypoxia and leptin signaling, norepinephrine and sympathetic tone, non-erythroid erythropoietin receptor signaling, and the metabolic demands at high altitude”, he says.

Voss says obesity is “a complex and multifactorial chronic disease that remains a military and public health priority in the US”. It is also a huge public health hazard in South Africa, where obesity rates have risen so high so quickly in recent years, that experts have been calling it an epidemic.

High altitude in beautiful parts of the country makes it more likely that people will get bigger doses of this innovative anti-obesity aid.

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