As an editor, writer, and an emailer, I am sitting way too much.  But I balance that — or so I thought — by visiting a gym three times a week for the elliptical machine and weights, plus walks on the weekends.  I think many of us have a similar lifestyle: sitting for long periods with a break a few times a week either walking or at a gym.  In the new book, Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, author Joan Vernikos, Ph.D. and former NASA director of the Life Sciences Division has made me rethink my daily routine.

In her work with astronauts, Dr. Joan Vernikos discovered “that constant movement that challenges the force of gravity is essential to good health.”  Astronauts, she realized, developed muscle weakness, heart problems, and poor balance and coordination, plus a lack of stamina from their time in space.  We all have heard that sitting too much shortens our lifespan, but did we know that’s the case for those who regularly exercise?  Unfortunately, yes.  Sitting for long periods of time — despite breaks for exercise throughout the week — is not good for the body.

Dr. Vernikos found that “systemic damage” was done to the body when the astronauts were weightless in space, or existing in an environment without gravity: the force that holds us down on earth.  When they returned to earth, the astronauts showed a “pattern of symptoms that collectively resemble those seen in older persons….The lack of gravity,” she writes, “causes rapid progression of the kinds of changes in their bodies that we on Earth associate with age.”   Examples included reduced stamina, greater risk of muscle injury, muscles no longer supported spine, blood pressure was affected, coordination problems, and more.  Effects that Dr. Vernikos associated with aging.    Thus, her theory that living with constant resistance to the force of gravity is essential to good health. and calls it the “head-to-toe gravity vector,” or the “Gravity Deprivation Syndrome.”

 

And it does make sense.  It gives more of an explanation of how our sedentary lifestyle is hurting our bodies…the drive-thrus that keep us in our cars, the comfy lounge chairs that encourage the “couch potato”  pose for hours in front of the TV and the computer screens, sitting in class, sitting on long commutes to work, on long airplane flights.  The remedy:  every day, balance how much you sit with how much you move.  

Just standing up frequently from your desk, chair, seat, goes a long way.  “Every time you stand up,” Dr. Vernikos writes, “the body initiates a shift in fluids, volume, and hormones, and causes muscle contractions to occur and almost every nerve in the body is stimulated.”  Standing up 16 times a day for two minutes is better for the body than standing up one time for half an hour.  Each time you stand up provides the stimulus your body needs: your heart rate increases every time you get out of your chair.

Let me consider my day.  I get to work at 9, and usually work nonstop at the computer until lunch (4 hours), then I go get lunch  for 1/2 hour, then back at work until 5pm (3 hours).  I go home my activity level rises with the dishes and laundry and walking the dog, but compared to the time spent sitting, my three times a week/45 minutes gym visit is not cutting it. 

What does Dr. Vernikos suggest?  Start gravity habits throughout your day:

  • park your car further away from the store,
  • walk around your building at coffee-break time,
  • when working at your desk, every 15 minutes stand up and stretch, raise your arms
  • work in the yard, rake the leave, garden
  • create a meal from scratch: involves standing, reaching, bending, and many motions of the arms and wrists as you wash, slice, chop, stir, lift pots and pans, etc.
  • sweep the floor with a broom, even use a broom outdoors to move a light snowfall
  • don’t forget to play: a favorite sport, an instrument, or ride a bike
  • shop the stores, or walk the mall, but skip the internet shopping
  • learn new things to work the brain: take up a language, learn bridge.  Research does show that working on a crossword puzzle increases the brain’s blood flow.

I found Dr. Vernikos’ book a real eye-opener.  I will look upon that long-distance parking spot as a good thing, the “elevator out of order” sign as a gentle reminder, and my dog will be glad for our longer walks. 

The bottom line:  go back to the basics, think about the generation that came before us and how they lived.  The more active we can keep our bodies the better.  Keep up the visits to the gym, of course, but keep moving throughout the day.  Limit your sitting, and WALK into that fast food restaurant.

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