Epigenetics and the Treadmill Desker

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Epigenetics and the Treadmill Desker

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Epigenetics? On a treadmill desk site? Talk about a collision of esoteric subjects, but stick with me for some truly fascinating – and sobering – health science.

Those of you blessed with a solid scientific background (and anyone who wants to skip to the good bits) should feel free to continue down to the last couple of paragraphs.  If you’re a bit more interested in theory, stick around, we’ve done the heavy googling for you; welcome to freshman genetics.  It all comes down to genes.  More specifically, it all comes down to the DNA sequence of said genes.

The Building Blocks

DNA really is everything.  It’s astounding how much information these double-helical wonders can carry.  The chemical structure of DNA makes it an ideal storage unit for biological information – sort of an unusually small and gooey thumb drive, if you will.  This information is inherited by your genetic descendents, as children inherit DNA from their parents in a 50/50 split.  Got hemorrhoids? It’s probably your mother’s fault – be sure to let her know.

So, there’s Genetics 101, time to get down to epigenetics.  What is epigenetics? Well…

Epi-What?!

Let’s compare your genome to a summer reading list, specifically, a horrendously long and boring one – no offense.  To continue the metaphor, imagine your cells are a pack of bored high-school students.  They’re never going to read the whole genome (they’ve just learned to drive, after all), instead, they settle for the cliff notes of the epigenome, a dynamic overlay of markers that determines which part of the genetic code the cells pay attention to and transcribe.  Alright, that last bit definitely killed the metaphor.

Why is this important? See, the epigenome is fluid.  Do you drink coffee? That changes things.  Have close friends? Yep, that too.  Everything from illegal drugs to parental attention can change the way your genes are expressed.  And this has some extremely interesting consequences – one of the most dramatic studies on epigenetics concerned obesity.

In 2000, some researchers got their hands on agouti mice, a strain of mouse genetically designed to be fat and yellow but also, unfortunately, ravenous and very vulnerable to cancer and diabetes.  These squishy-squishy agouti mice generally gave birth to, surprise, more squishy-squishy agouti mice (genetics at its most predictable).

But generally does not mean always; it turns out there’s a way for agouti offspring to come out slender, brown, and long-lived in all the ways their adorable parents are not.  This transition comes about because of diet-related epigenetic changes.  As this 2006 Discover article shows, a different laboratory diet could result in the genetic offspring of an agouti mouse looking like an entirely different species.

And therein lies the key of epigenetics: you are what you eat, but – as they say – you’re not just eating for one.  The way you live your life will change the way your children, and their children, and your descendents in general will live theirs.  Each one of us has the potential to genetically alter our lineage, for good, or for ill.  That’s some serious responsibility right there.

Walk of Ages

Now, I promised to talk about treadmill desks, we’re getting there.  Diet is not the only factor that affects obesity and its associated risks.  Exercise is also extremely important and, as we’re starting to learn, epigenetically significant.  The New York Times just released an article covering two recent studies.  One studied the methylation (one flavor of epigenetic change) in the fatty tissue of sedentary, middle aged men who then underwent an exercise intervention.  They found a direct link between exercise and methylation of various gene sites associated with obesity – metabolism was also directly impacted.

What’s more, other sites that coded for type 2 diabetes were also affected.  Some of these sites are known to be involved in parental imprinting (in which a cell uses genetic information from only one parent), which raises the possibility of changing the inherited risk for type 2 diabetes.

While I can’t promise you that walking on a treadmill desk will turn your children into ubermenschen, I can tell you this much: exercise impacts us at an epigenetic level, and our epigenome is heritable.  As we at WorkWhileWalking often say, treadmill desking is no replacement for intense exercise.  As the second study showed, intense exercise leads to more dramatic changes in methylation – so you’ll still need to work out.  However, that same study identified muscle contraction as one of the basic causes for methylation.  Do treadmill desks result in muscle contraction? Absolutely.  Walk for yourself, but if you’re planning to have kids, walk for them too.

As for the rest of us? Epigenetics are still relevant if you’re past the childbearing phase.  Epigenetic changes stay with you, so by walking, you’re creating lasting changes in the way your body behaves.  And just because your kids are already walking, talking, and borrowing your money doesn’t mean they won’t listen to you.  Set an example and walk, and maybe you’ll still be able to make a change for good in a grandchild’s life.