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“Sometimes the greatest scientific breakthroughs happen because someone ignores the prevailing pessimism.”[1]

– Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance

As scientists understand more about the process of gene expression, people living with genetic disorders may have reason to be optimistic. Outside of counseling to protect future generations, the traditional treatment for life-threatening genetic disorders has previously focused on developing a method to edit out the offending gene.

But the emerging field of epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene function, poses another possibility: can lifestyle choices mitigate the health risks programmed into our genetic code? While not explicitly stated, this question became a meta-theme of the 2017 International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (ISBNPA) conference held in Victoria, British Columbia last June where the official theme was “Advancing Behavior Change Science.”

I imagine the unspoken aspiration of many conference attendees was to experience at least one “ah ha” moment, and in this aspect, I was not disappointed. In a session comparing the incidence of Type 2 Diabetes among black people in the U.K. to those of similar genetic background in the West Indies, we engaged in the age-old nature versus nurture debate (hint, it’s not an either/or situation). The researchers in this study found that the incidence of Type 2 diabetes was the same among both populations, despite living in very different environments. The results led us to consider how different types of stressors can cause similar results.

In another session, the presenter provoked discussion by asking: which came first, the chicken or the egg? The topic centered on whether depression makes people sedentary or if being sedentary makes people depressed. It’s a frustrating dilemma for millions whose lives could be improved if we knew how to help them. Regardless of the answer, there is evidence that people can make behavior changes that positively impact their health.

I gleaned many other insights into how to make the most of natural human inclinations to produce healthier behavior. One study presented evidence that in general, people think of posture as situational, which means that they may not perceive sitting and therefore don’t realize how sedentary they are. Knowing this could help us guard against too little physical activity.  Another key take-away came from a study in the Netherlands, which found bicyclists were less annoyed by traffic detours after being told how many more calories they would burn compared biking their regular route.

Dr. David Dunstan from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia supported the case for sit-stand environments in the workplace, noting that “observational, experimental and intervention evidence indicates that benefits for cardio-metabolic health could be achieved through standing and standing/walking.”[2] Another noted scientist, Dr. Sebastien Chastain of Glasgow University, provided a synopsis of the sedentary behavior crisis saying, “Sitting is not simple. We may be changing our behavior in subtle and complex ways over long periods of time.”[3]

The conference ended with a symposium sponsored by Ergotron where the Sedentary Research Behavior Network (SBRN) announced the publication of its Terminology Consensus Project. The project defined terms like physical inactivity, stationary behavior, sedentary behavior, screen time and more to create a common understanding of key words and concepts.

Scientific conferences like the ISBNPA serve an important purpose for both researchers and the public alike by demonstrating that there are optimists among us “who decide to test what everyone else had assumed was impossible.”[4] Cures for non-communicable, lifestyle diseases rely on the cooperation and support of academic institutions, governments and manufacturers, like Ergotron, that have invested resources into research projects on sedentary behavior in offices and classrooms. Working together, we can solve problems and promote healthy lifestyles that make a difference now and in the years to come.

[1] Nessa Carey, PhD, Visiting Professor at Imperial College in London, U.K.
[2] David Dunstan, PhD, Baker IDI, Melbourne Australia, proceedings from the 2017 ISBNPA Conference
[3] Sebastien Chastin, Glasgow University, proceedings from the 2017 ISBNPA Conference
[4] Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution, page 29

Carrie Schmitz

Senior Manager of Human Factors & Ergonomics Research, AOEAS, CH at Ergotron

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