The results from the animal studies were very convincing, he said, and human experiments were just as compelling. The researchers injected a small needle into the muscles of the human volunteers and extracted a small sample for biopsy. Once again, the enzyme was suppressed while the humans remained seated. That resulted in retention of fat, and it also resulted in lower HDL, the "good cholesterol," and an overall reduction in the metabolic rate.
The implications, Hamilton said, are clear. While much thought has been given to the good effects of regular exercise, scientists have not paid enough attention to what happens during the rest of the time when we may be fairly active but are probably sitting too much. That could help explain the rising tide of obesity, because people tend to sit more these days than they did a half century ago. Not to mention eating too much and getting precious little exercise.
Some might argue that playing video games, or even working at the computer, involves movement of the upper body, especially the hands and arms, so that's not really inactive. But Hamilton counters that arms don't weigh very much, and the big muscles in the human body which are so critical to burning fat are located in our legs and back.
"When we think about the postural muscles that are mostly in the legs and back, these are big, powerful muscles," he said. "We're talking probably 20 pounds of muscle in each leg. That's a lot of muscle that can be engaged in routine activities," including burning fat. But they can't do that without the enzyme that is suppressed while seated.
Much is still not known, including such fundamental issues as how long the effect lasts from getting up and moving around for a while, but Hamilton expects the answers to come fairly soon.
"There is going to be a flood of research on this in the next couple of years, and not just by us," he said. "This has raised the attention of a lot of great scientists around the world who have begun doing their own studies."
In the meantime, he suggests, we do the obvious. Take the time to get up and "putter" for a while. If his research turns out to be on the mark, it could save your life.
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.