Is there a laziness gene?
Based on some intriguing preliminary studies in animals, J. Timothy Lightfoot, a kinesiologist, and his team at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, suggest that genetics may indeed predispose some of us to sloth. Using mice specially bred and selected according to their activity levels, Lightfoot identified 20 different genomic locations that work in tandem to influence their activity levels
Lightfoot, who originally wanted to coach college basketball and is himself an avid athlete, began studying activity levels as a way to try to figure out why, given all we know about the overwhelming health benefits of physical activity, so many people still choose not to exercise.
Exercise-prone mice put in a good 5 to 8 miles per day (the equivalent of an average man running 40 to 50 miles a day) vs. 0.3 miles per day for inactive mice. While the exercise wheels of the activity-prone mice would turn all night, some of the sedentary mice devised ingenious ways to avoid activity.
"When we used to talk about activity, it was whether or not people decided to be active," says Lightfoot. "Now it's clear that there's an inherent drive as to whether one is active or not active."
Exactly how that drive plays out in the body is still a mystery. There are two theories, Lightfoot says: Genes may affect either the way muscles work — perhaps causing them to use energy more efficiently and preventing fatigue — or some higher-order biochemical circuit in the brain, such as levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine or serotonin.
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We’ve all known people who are too lazy to get off the couch, and then there are CFS patients, many of whom were avid athletes (both casual and Olympian) before they got sick, and would love to return to their previous level of activity. As Lightfoot says, "an inherent drive" to be active.
Had you asked my hobbies in 1982, 5 years before the virus, I would have told you dancing, playing volleyball, playing softball and taking long walks/hiking in the nearby mountains. I walked 3-4 miles a day on weekdays and 10-20 on weekends. Stitching was something I did on lunch hours and buses, places I couldn’t dance or play volleyball, and reading was only when it was too dark or rainy to be outdoors.
Had you asked my hobbies in 1992, 5 years after the virus, they would have been sitting on the couch stitching, sitting on the couch reading, and sitting on the couch watching other people play baseball. My personality hadn’t changed, but my health had – there was a Volleyball Café between the bus stop and my apartment, which was taking sign-ups for evening leagues, but by the time I got to their driveway, I was so exhausted from working an 8-hour day that I didn’t have it in me to walk through the parking lot to get to the café to sign up ... much less to actually play. I thought about it every day for a couple of years, and every day it was the same thing: "I’m not sure I have enough energy left to walk the 2 more blocks home without resting, I certainly am not able to play volleyball for an hour." That's the "inherent drive" to be active, despite the illness that left me unable to be as active as I once was.
Had you asked my hobbies in 2002, 15 years after the virus, I would have told you my hobbies were lying squarely in the middle of the bed, flat on my back, hoping that I would not pass out, and praying for the screaming tinnitus to stop before it drove me to suicide. I couldn’t sit up to stitch, I couldn’t concentrate enough to read, and I kept the TV tuned to the talking heads on CNN because music of any sort (even the almost imperceptible background music of a movie) was too often in a key that clashed with the ringing in my ears. I hadn’t stopped thinking "I’d love to take a walk and go exploring", but the simple fact was, if I got off the horizontal I very quickly got dizzy and frequently passed out.
This is the difference between CFS and depression: people with depression have no desire to be active; they’re perfectly happy to stay on the couch. People with CFS want to get up and go out and do the things they used to do, but their bodies don’t cooperate. There’s the constant frustration of that "inherent drive" to be active, and the reality that if you stand up from the couch, you’re going to come to on the floor.
People’s personalities don’t change. Avid athletes don’t one day decide to become couch potatoes, and overachievers don’t overnight turn into sloths. The hard-charging businessman who escapes the rat race often starts training for a different kind of race, having been the best in his field, he now wants to best a field of world-class marathoner. The top lawyer, having made his millions, sets out to be a top-selling novelist. But, barring some outside force, like post-viral paralytic muscle weakness, avid athletes don’t take to their beds like delicate Victorian ladies. It’s just not in their nature.
Yet, despite the large number of CFS patients who were avid athletes, and the observations of CFS experts like Dr. Bell that patients tried to go back to their athletic endeavors and relapsed, the myth still remains that CFS patients are merely lazy and all they need is a kick in the butt to get off the couch and back to work.
Hopefully this genetic research proving that some people are born lazy and some are born active will quash that myth once and for all, and those of us who were once athletic and are now disabled will not have to listen to the rantings of those who think we've simply become lazy.