Last month’s SpaceX launch rekindled space enthusiasm across the globe. Starman, the astronaut dummy pilot in its sweet cherry-red roadster, is tooling around the universe on the Sunday drive of a lifetime, one that many people hope to follow someday soon. Starman is a symbol of where humanity is going and our belief that anything is possible. After all, as long as it avoids the asteroid belt, Starman is on track for a multimillion-year trip. But buckled as it is into the driver’s seat, Starman is also a symbol of where humanity is right now—sitting on our butts.
The way we live our days and position our bodies has tremendous influence our on physiology and how we move—and impacts the quality of our life experience. For years now, we’ve been warned about the health effects of too much sitting: high blood pressure, diabetes, atherosclerosis. And we’ve been feeling the effects, as well: Sore necks, low back pain and stiff shoulders are the new normal for office workers.
Ironically, the trend toward standing desks creates different but equally problematic effects on our health: varicose veins, joint problems, edema and added stress on the circulatory system. The truth is, this problem is not about sitting or standing—it’s about not moving.
Adding insult to injury, all this inactivity is making changes to our biochemistry, musculoskeletal system and even cellular function:
- We end up with fewer mitochondria in our cells, which means we burn less energy.
- More insulin enters our bloodstream, making us store more sugar as body fat.
- It reduces the volume of blood in our body, which means the heart has to work harder.
- Reduced muscle activity makes us feel sore, stiff and stuck and makes us more susceptible to injury.
These are all changes we normally associate with aging. Inactivity makes us older than our years.
In her book “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals” (Quill Driver Books, 2011), former director of life sciences at NASA Dr. Joan Vernikos details how NASA scientists are collecting data from astronauts to understand the effects of inactivity on people here on Earth.
As far back as the 1970s, they observed that astronauts returned from space with the decreases in aerobic capacity, blood volume and bone density usually seen in frail elderly people. They came back with older bodies. Vernikos knew that the astronauts hadn’t accumulated more years, so what could explain the similarities? She spent the next few years devoted to finding the answer.
“I arrived at the conclusion that […] these kinds of changes don’t come about from merely piling up years of life—these are actually a direct consequence of the sedentary lifestyles we tend to adopt as we get older, lifestyles that don’t use the head-to-toe gravity ‘vector,’ and instead involve a great deal of sitting,” she writes.
When we don’t move enough, we mimic the zero-gravity environment of spaceflight. We’re turning into Starman—though not exactly the way we’d like.
Secret to health
Thankfully, the NASA researchers also discovered how to reverse the deterioration in astronauts when they come home and how to slow physical aging in those of us who’ll never make it to space.
The key for both? You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a new type of workout or a high-tech solution. But the real answer is invisible, found everywhere and costs nothing: gravity.
Yes, the key to healthier living here on Earth is making use of a resource we’ve never even thought about as a resource. But, as Vernikos puts it, “When … the body moves, vibrates, stretches and tenses against the force of gravity, these negative body changes become preventable.”
Change position, change your life
OK. So we need to harness the power of gravity in our everyday lives. Sounds simple. But what the heck does it mean?
What it doesn’t mean is adding more workouts to an already packed schedule. Instead, we need to build “gravity habits,” as Vernikos calls them, by making simple changes to our daily routines that get us moving against gravity more often.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT for short, is the cumulative small, brief but frequent body movements we make throughout the day. The term was coined by James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., and his team at the Mayo Clinic, who found that NEAT accounts for more of our total daily energy burn than any workout. NEAT is anything we do that isn’t sleeping, eating, sports or working out. It’s everything from typing to cooking to fidgeting in your chair.
It might seem a little out there (space pun intended!), but shifting around in your seat is literally the simplest thing you can do for your metabolism. And if you’ve got a standing desk, you can fidget, too—try swaying from side to side, shifting your weight from front to back on your feet, and bending your knees.
If you sit for most of your workday, standing up often is a simple habit that will make a big impact on your health. It’s almost too simple: Every 20 minutes, stand up, pause for a moment, then sit back down. If you have to get up more often, even better.
In fact, the frequency of standing is more important than the length of time you remain standing. “Every time you stand up, the body initiates a shift in fluids, volume and hormones, and it causes muscle contractions to occur; almost every nerve in the body is stimulated,” Vernikos explains. “If you stand up 16 times a day for two minutes, the body would read that as 16 stimuli; whereas if you stood once and remained standing for 32 minutes, it would see that as one stimulus.”
So go for quantity!
While SpaceX and Starman have rekindled our dreams for a human adventure to Mars, NASA’s commitment to discovery has given us the tools for healthy living, slower aging and a pain-free life so we might live long and prosper here on Earth.
Photo credit: Jacob Lund, AdobeStock; AlessioLin, Unsplash; sebra, Adobe Stock