Did you see the Pixar movie WALL-E? It’s a story about the earth being contaminated with garbage in 2805. A mega-corporation BUY-N-LARGE has evacuated everyone to live on a huge starliner spaceship, The Axiom. It is space so there is no gravity and The Axiom’s passengers have a very automated lifestyle they have all become obese.
It’s fiction right? Yes, and no. Let me introduce Joan Vernikos, the Former Director of NASA’s Life Science’s Division who spent years understanding what happens to the human body in space. She had been working for years and drawn some correlations between the impacts of weightlessness and aging.
In 1998, at age 77 John Glen approached her and soon he began preparing to go back into space. The other astronauts who would fly were between 35 and 45 years old. What could NASA be thinking to send an elderly man into space?
First, he had volunteered, because he, like Joan Vernikos, had a hunch that space had some secrets about health and aging. They both had concluded that weightlessness, the environment of no gravity found in space, triggered many of the same conditions as aging and other poor health states. There was something about gravity that was necessary for the human body to keep young and healthy and they wanted to learn more.
Glen prepared and the crew of seven spent nine days in space doing a double-blind study to see what happened to their bodies during that time. The results were presented before a full auditorium at the NIH. The results showed one outlier out of the seven who flew. Joan was nervous. Then surprised. It was the 35-year old astronaut, not 77 year-old John Glenn.
The even better news. John Glenn’s recovery post-flight was just as fast as his younger peers. John Glenn lived to be 95 years old, and died only recently in December 2016.
What does this have to do with you and me? It is just one of the studies that shows that life, and the movement we do within our wonderful gravity-filled earth, is good for our health. More importantly, a lifestyle of sitting and a lack of movement is creating conditions almost exactly like what happened to the astronauts in space. Weightlessness, and sitting still for extended periods and a sedentary lifestyle robs the body of the resistance and change in movement we need to stay strong and healthy.
As you might expect it’s a syndrome, Gravity Deprivation Syndrome (GDS), and also called gravipause. Unlike menopause, this can affect both men and women, as early as 20 years old, if you spend a lot of time in bed, or sitting, or you have a spinal cord injury or some other paralyzing condition.
It can also show up if you are an older person with limited mobility or at any age if you choose to live a sedentary lifestyle. It leads to being fragile, and as we see so often this can be the demise of your health and your life. In studies they learned that as little as four days in bed could result in a measurable case of GDS, leading to aerobic fitness reduced as much as 25 percent, increased loss of calcium in the urine, markers of bone loss, and measurable reduction in blood volume.
So as a working American, who most likely does a fair amount of sitting, you’ve probably heard the phrase that sitting is the new smoking and that sitting is killing us. I’ve been a little wary of this fatalistic news bite. Joan Vernikos’ research makes sense to me to understand exactly why the sitting and the sedentary lifestyle is so detrimental. It’s a basic case of atrophy. When something is not used it gets weak and shrinks.
In the “original design” of the homo sapiens, about 200,000 years ago, it was a very different life than that of today. Humans did not wear a fit bit to count our steps, we walked to hunt and gather food. We did not go to the gym to lift weights, we carried water and wood to make a fire and keep ourselves warm and lifted heavy loads to build shelters. We did not plan time to go hiking or camping to enjoy nature, we lived with the elements, with minimal time spent indoors.
The human body was “designed” for a certain set of criteria. Imagine designing a resort hotel in Hawaii and then trying to move that building to the North Pole and have it function as a prison. Yet that is what we have done.
I recently saw an interview with the actress that plays Wonder Woman in the recent movie. They asked her about the training to get in shape for the movie and she said the horseback riding was one of the most strenuous parts of the role. “I used to think the horse did all of the work.” If you think about it, or if you ever have ridden a horse you know the constant movement you must do to stay balanced and in the saddle. In a car or in our desk chair, or on the couch, we don’t do much work. It’s back to what they portray in WALL-E.
But here is where the next leap of reasoning is faulty. What would you guess the solution to be? Most people would say EXERCISE. That is partially right.
Movement is the right answer. Exercise is a form of movement. When I look at the human body from an engineer’s perspective, we are designed to move in lots of different directions, in a combination of fast and slow movements. Our culture has made many of the original tasks of a human life, and our survival, no longer necessary. Our food is prepared, we drive from our driveways to the parking garage. We sit much of the day.
So I continue to explore what this all means. I have several more books to dig into this week. I’ll keep sharing what I find. But what I have learned so far is this. We have actions that strengthen our mobilizer muscles. These are the kinds of things we do at the gym as exercise to build the muscles that help us move. We also have a slew of activities, that we don’t call exercise. It’s the simple regular movements of everyday life. Walking, washing the dishes, gardening, walking up and down the stairs. These activities, help build our stabilizer muscles. We need these stabilizer muscles as the foundation to be strong and healthy and pain-free. The big aha is that these activities, and the way you think about them and approach them, can shift your health, how you feel and how you age.
Ellen Langer, another Harvard researcher, also showed that how you think about your daily movement impacts the benefits of that movement. She studied 84 hotel housekeepers, who worked cleaning rooms and changing sheets. Half of the group were told they should think of their work as exercise and were told how many calories they burned doing specific tasks. The others were told nothing about the health benefits of their work. After four weeks, those told of the benefits had lowered their blood pressure by 10 percent and lost two pounds and 0.5 percent body fat on average. Hmmmm….
So the experiment I’m trying this week is to notice three things.
#1. How I walk? Am I upright and flowing like a graceful dancer?
#2. How I sit in my chair and when driving? Am I upright?
#3. How I think about my daily activities?
Try tracking these in a small journal on on your phone. Just notice. We’ll take more steps next week.