Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Low nonexercise activity thermogenesis: Uncooperative genes or comfy furniture?

The degree of nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) seems to a major factor influencing the amount of fat gained or lost by an individual. It also seems to be strongly influenced by genetics, because NEAT is largely due to involuntary activities like fidgeting.

But why should this be?

The degree to which different individuals will develop diseases of civilization in response to consumption of refined carbohydrate-rich foods can also be seen as influenced by genetics. After all, there are many people who eat those foods and are thin and healthy, and that appears to be in part a family trait. But whether we consume those products or not is largely within our control.

So, it is quite possible that NEAT is influenced by genetics, but the fact that NEAT is low in so many people should be a red flag. In the same way that the fact that so many people who eat refined carbohydrate-rich foods are obese should be a red flag. Moreover, modern isolated hunter-gatherers tend to have low levels of body fat. Given the importance of NEAT for body fat regulation, it is not unreasonable to assume that NEAT is elevated in hunter-gatherers, compared to modern urbanites. Hunter-gatherers live more like our Paleolithic ancestors than modern urbanites.

True genetic diseases, caused by recent harmful mutations, are usually rare. If low NEAT were truly a genetic “disease”, those with low NEAT should be a small minority. That is not the case. It is more likely that the low NEAT that we see in modern urbanites is due to a maladaptation of our Stone Age body to modern life, in the same way that our Stone Age body is maladapted to the consumption of foods rich in refined grains and seeds.

What could have increased NEAT among our Paleolithic ancestors, and among modern isolated hunter-gatherers?

One thing that comes to mind is lack of comfortable furniture, particularly comfortable chairs (photo below from: It is quite possible that our Paleolithic ancestors invented some rudimentary forms of furniture, but they would have been much less comfortable than modern furniture used in most offices and homes. The padding of comfy office chairs is not very easy to replicate with stones, leaves, wood, or even animal hides. You need engineering to design it; you need industry to produce that kind of thing.

I have been doing a little experiment with myself, where I do things that force me to sit tall and stand while working in my office, instead of sitting back and “relaxing”. Things like putting a pillow on the chair so that I cannot rest my back on it, or placing my computer on an elevated surface so that I am forced to work while standing up. I tend to move a lot more when I do those things, and the movement is largely involuntary. These are small but constant movements, a bit like fidgeting. (It would be interesting to tape myself and actually quantify the amount of movement.)

It seems that one can induce an increase in NEAT, which is largely due to involuntary activities, by doing some voluntary things like placing a pillow on a chair or working while standing up.

Is it possible that the unnaturalness of comfy furniture, and particularly of comfy chairs, is contributing (together with other factors) to not only making us fat but also having low-back problems?

Both obesity and low-back problems are widespread among modern urbanites. Yet, from an evolutionary perspective, they should not be. They likely impaired survival success among our ancestors, and thus impaired their reproductive success. Evolution “gets angry” at these things; over time it wipes them out. In my reading of studies of hunter-gatherers, I don’t recall a single instance in which obesity and low-back problems were described as being widespread.