Background: Cross-sectional studies have shown that objectively measured physical activity is associated with childhood adiposity, and a strong inverse dose-response association with body mass index (BMI) has been found. However, few studies have explored the extent to which this association reflects reverse causation. We aimed to determine whether childhood adiposity causally influences levels of physical activity using genetic variants reliably associated with adiposity to estimate causal effects.
Methods and findings: The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children collected data on objectively assessed activity levels of 4,296 children at age 11 y with recorded BMI and genotypic data. We used 32 established genetic correlates of BMI combined in a weighted allelic score as an instrumental variable for adiposity to estimate the causal effect of adiposity on activity. In observational analysis, a 3.3 kg/m² (one standard deviation) higher BMI was associated with 22.3 (95% CI, 17.0, 27.6) movement counts/min less total physical activity (p = 1.6×10⁻¹⁶), 2.6 (2.1, 3.1) min/d less moderate-to-vigorous-intensity activity (p = 3.7×10⁻²⁹), and 3.5 (1.5, 5.5) min/d more sedentary time (p = 5.0×10⁻⁴). In Mendelian randomization analyses, the same difference in BMI was associated with 32.4 (0.9, 63.9) movement counts/min less total physical activity (p = 0.04) (∼5.3% of the mean counts/minute), 2.8 (0.1, 5.5) min/d less moderate-to-vigorous-intensity activity (p = 0.04), and 13.2 (1.3, 25.2) min/d more sedentary time (p = 0.03). There was no strong evidence for a difference between variable estimates from observational estimates. Similar results were obtained using fat mass index. Low power and poor instrumentation of activity limited causal analysis of the influence of physical activity on BMI.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that increased adiposity causes a reduction in physical activity in children and support research into the targeting of BMI in efforts to increase childhood activity levels. Importantly, this does not exclude lower physical activity also leading to increased adiposity, i.e., bidirectional causation.