Getting from the hall in the Linnaeusborg to Anton Scheurink’s office is like negotiating an adventure course. You go down the stairs into the basement, up some more stairs, through a stairwell and then take yet another staircase that dissects the building’s expansive mezzanine. ‘I can’t be seen taking the lift in the Faculty,’ Scheurink mutters apologetically during our trek to his office. ‘I’d be the laughing stock’. Scheurink is aware of his reputation and is keen to uphold it.
Text: Eelco Salverda / Communication Office UG
His official title is Professor of Neuro-endocrinology. He studies the interactions between the brain and hormones. Although you’d never guess it from his Chair, Scheurink is intrigued by behavioural change. He has a standing desk in his office, highlighting his belief that ‘sitting is the new smoking’. One of his areas of interest is the principle behind NEAT: ‘non-exercise activity thermogenesis’, or subconscious exercise during everyday activities such as climbing the stairs, biking to work and cleaning.
For many years, Scheurink’s research focused on subjects such as addiction, health, brains and nutrition, and particularly the interaction between the brain and other systems in our body. ‘The energy balance is the common thread through all my research and teaching: food consumption versus activity, how this affects one’s weight and the role played by the brain. Various substances tell our brain exactly what we are eating and how much. The brain responds. You could eat less, for example, but then you’d find yourself eating more often. Regulation like this takes place all the time.’ According to Scheurink, the energy balance concept started in prehistoric times. ‘Food was scarce, fat was important to our ancestors,’ he explains. ‘An empty stomach meant that you had to become active. You were hungry so you went out hunting or gathering. In the brief periods that food was available, being inactive paid off: you burned less valuable fat. The result is an evolutionary urge to store food and fat in times of plenty. It’s an urge we still feel: our systems tell us that we enjoy eating too much, or eating unhealthy food, and we find it difficult to resist. This principle of beneficial sloth is all well and good for someone who doesn’t expect to live beyond 30, but these days, we live to 80 and it’s leading to all kinds of health problems and diseases.’
Eating is not the only way to restore the balance. Exercise and sport also play a role. If you play a sport or are active in some other way, the brain compensates by activating hormonal processes that we don’t fully comprehend, Scheurink continues. ‘Sport is good, but you should be aware that your brain will start compensating. Doing a lot of sport often makes us take less subconscious (NEAT) exercise. To most people, more exercise and a healthy lifestyle means eat less and do more sport. But this isn’t always an option if you’re fat. You mustn’t force people to do sport; this only leads to anxiety and aversion. Instead, travel by bike, take the stairs: things that you can do. I think it’s better to promote exercise than to try and change people’s eating habits.’
Scheurink not only enjoys teaching and talking about his field, he also considers it important. He’s good at it, too, hence his election as UG Lecturer of the Year in 2015. ‘The strange thing is that being Lecturer of the Year seems to have raised my profile with social organizations.’ Scheurink regularly gives lectures at municipal offices, the Adult Education Institute and addiction clinics. He no longer tries to push a healthier diet. ‘I gave up on that ages ago. Instead, I try to encourage people to exercise more.’
Isn’t Scheurink largely preaching to the converted? Most of the people he addresses are already fairly well informed. They are usually fit, want to change or already possess the knowledge and skills to do so. ‘It’s true that lots of the people I’d like to reach aren’t willing or able to hear what I’m saying,’ Scheurink sighs. ‘But there’s still room for improvement among the converted, which is why I’m happy to do what I can in my own environment. Changing behaviour can be so good for you. Don’t eat your lunch at your desk, walk over to your colleague instead of phoning. NEAT behaviour means raising awareness, being conscious of what you do. You can nudge people in the right direction, and it soon becomes routine. Sixty percent of people don’t even manage the recommended 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. Our level of inactivity is truly shocking! Inactivity increases insulin levels and causes deposits of bad fats, even if your weight remains low. Being active is more important than being slim.’
A large part of the solution to the problem of inactivity lies in our infrastructure, which is built for convenience. In America, for example, it’s practically impossible to get to the supermarket 300 metres down the road by bike. Scheurink sees three possible types of intervention: personal, infrastructural and incentives from a third party. ‘The personal approach is when people make sure they get more exercise in their daily lives, often assisted by personal gadgets that give feedback. The second approach involves architectural changes to the social environment. Make stairs more visible and attractive than lifts and escalators, for example. In Stockholm, researchers have created a staircase in a metro station with piano keys for steps. They produce a sound as you walk up and down. The number of people taking the stairs increased by 66% percent! Finally, food producers and supermarkets can also play a role. In an American campaign, people were given a discount depending on the number of steps on their pedometer. Or manufacturers could print the number of steps needed to burn off the food inside the packaging rather than the number of calories. This is something people understand.’
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