If you’re like most people, myself included, you probably spend a large portion of each day in a seated position. It’s hard to avoid these days, as computer work predominates, and most also spend many hours each week driving to and from work.
Mounting research now suggests that sitting in and of itself is an independentrisk factor for poor health and premature death—even if you exercise regularly.
Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, presents a simple yet powerful scientific explanation for why sitting has such a dramatic impact on your health, and how you can simply and easily counteract the ill effects of sitting.
She was one of the primary doctors responsible for ensuring the health of the astronauts as they went into space, investigating the health ramifications of space travel, and what can be done to counter them.
On a side note, one of my initial life ambitions was actually to be an astronaut, up until college when I opted for pre-med instead. I’m glad I didn’t pursue being an astronaut because I think there are far too many health dangers associated with working in space. But it was definitely an initial ambition of mine.
My primary passion is improving health which is why I’m very excited about Dr. Vernikos’ work. There have been a number of studies within the last year or two that show that even if you are very fit, exercising as much as five times a week for a half hour to an hour each time, you can fall far short of optimum fitness if you sit most of the rest of the time. You’re even at an increased risk of dying prematurely.
Dr. Vernikos’ research with astronauts has clarified why this occurs and, even more importantly, provides us with a simple regimen that could counteract those consequences.
In order to determine why regular exercise does not appear to compensate for the negative effects of prolonged sitting, some of her research focused on finding out what type of movement is withdrawn by sitting. What she discovered was as revolutionary as it was counterintuitive. Not only did she discover that the act of standing up is more effective than walking for counteracting the ill effects of sitting, the key is how many times you stand up.
It’s actually the change in posture that is the most powerful signal, in terms of having a beneficial impact on your health, not the act of standing in and of itself. Put another way, the key to counteract the ill effects of sitting is to repeatedly interrupt your sitting. The key is frequent intermittent interactions with gravity. Standing up 35 times at once will provide only a small percent of the benefit of standing up once every 20 minutes.
It’s All About Interacting Regularly With GravityDuring Skylab, which was the longest mission Dr. Vernikos worked on in the early 1970s, many medical observers noted that astronauts were prematurely aging while in space. Interestingly, the changes that were occurring were found to be very similar to what happens to you when you’re bedridden, and to the aging process itself. Initially, Dr. Vernikos referred to these phenomena as parallel processes, as she could not prove a cause and effect that were identical to all three.
That eventually changed when she was doing a bed-rest study.
“I was helping a friend out whose parents had come from Greece and spoke no English,” she says. “The lady had fallen and broken her hip, had it fixed and replaced. But she refused to stand up and get out of bed. She eventually ended up in a nursing home in California... What struck me at the nursing home was that many of the things I saw in these older people were very similar to what I could see in my subjects who have been lying in bed for seven days. Especially when they got out of bed, when balance and coordination is affected, and they would pass out when standing up, and they would shuffle their feet.
I thought, well, this is very strange. The people who are in bed, and the astronauts, recover. But here are these people in the nursing home who are showing exactly the same changes. Maybe one should turn the question around?
Maybe the question is not ‘what causes the changes in them—is it or isn’t it aging?’ Maybe it is the conditions that they find themselves in—the inactivity or the relative inactivity in space that induces these changes rather than the number of years one has? When I started asking that question, then some of the research began to make sense.”
Did you know that the changes in bone and muscle that occur here on Earth in one year’s time–approximately one percent loss of bone or one percent loss of muscle–occur in just one week to one month when you’re in space? Incredibly, you get close to a 10-fold acceleration of the aging process when you live in a gravity-free environment! And this is part of the equation when it comes to explaining why chronic sitting is an independent risk factor for premature death.
Astronaut Legend Proves Biological Age Can Be CounteractedAstronaut John Glenn was the first man to perform an orbital flight. He eventually became a US Senator, and at the age of 77 became the oldest man in space, thanks to Dr. Vernikos, when he participated in her experiment to validate her theory of aging in the microgravity of space.
“[Glenn] happened to be chair of the Committee on Aging at the time,” she says. “It occurred to him, as he was listening to all these testimonies, that what he heard was very much like what he had experienced and what he knew his colleagues were experiencing as they flew. So, he got very excited.
One day in 1997, he walked into my office. He had done some fantastic research... comparing the aerospace medicine textbook with the PDR on the effects of aging and drew comparisons between the two. He said, ‘Well, I think if I flew again, it could provide information that could help everyone as we age’... I was concerned not because of what might happen to him during the nine days of flight, but what might happen to him in terms of recovery.”
Still, the flight took place, placing Glenn at the age of 77 in space with five other astronauts, averaging in age between 35 and 45. The results, which were double-blind, were presented before a full auditorium at the NIH.
“What they showed on the slide was that out of the seven people who flew, one was an outlier. So, we all thought to ourselves, ‘Oh, dear, they’re his. He’s an outlier. He’s older, that’s why'... This confirms that if you’re older, you will react differently.”
But when the identities of the astronauts in the data points were revealed, John Glenn was NOT the outlier. A 35-year-old astronaut was. Glenn was actually right in the middle of the cluster of astronauts, suggesting that if you’re healthy and fit, you really can do anything, regardless of your age. His recovery post-flight also turned out to be just as fast as his younger peers.
Your Lifestyle Determines How Quickly Your Body AgesWhat this means for us living permanently here on Earth is that the changes that accompany aging are more likely a result of our lifestyle rather than the inevitable outcome associated with a numerical or physiological age. The good news is that you can prevent, and to a great degree delay, the damage associated with a large portion of biological aging, especially the most crippling, which is pain with movement and loss of flexibility that you had as a youth.
It also means that getting too hung up on a once-a-day exercise routine is to put the cart before the horse. FIRST you need to make sure you’re engaging in more or less perpetual non-exercise movement, as this is an independent risk factor. You then want to add structured exercise on top of that to reap all the benefits associated with exercise. Going to the gym a few times a week for an hour simply isn’t going to counteract hours upon hours of chronic uninterrupted sitting, which essentially mimics a microgravity situation, i.e. you’re not exerting your body against gravity. Only frequent non-exercise movement will do that.
“What became abundantly clear to me very quickly was that gravity plays a big role in our physiological function and in the aging process,” Dr. Vernikos says.
Fortunately, there’s nothing complicated about this. The key point is to move and shift position often, when you’re sitting down. Meaning, you want to interrupt your sitting as often as possible.
“We were designed to squat. We were designed to kneel. Sitting is okay, but it’s uninterrupted sitting that is bad for us,”Dr. Vernikos says. “We are not designed to sit continuously. We are not designed to be in quasi-microgravity... It’s not how many hours of sitting that's bad for you; it’s how often you interrupt that sitting that is GOOD for you!”
The other thing is that when I say ‘Stand up,’ then you say, ‘Okay, standing is the opposite of sitting.’ No, standing is not the opposite of sitting, because sitting continuously is bad for you, and standing continuously is bad for you. The body is not designed to respond to square waves. Any retail employee will tell you that they suffer all kinds of consequences of many hours of standing on the job. Even nurses have known this for years: standing on the job is not good for you It’s about interrupting the sitting. The interrupting the sitting is not necessarily walking; it is the change in posture [that matters].”
Gravity as a Stimulus to Achieve Health...Interestingly, lipoprotein lipase is dramatically reduced during inactivity, and increases with activity, the most effective activity being, you guessed it, standing up from a seated position. Lipoprotein lipase is an enzyme that attaches to fat in your bloodstream and transports it into your muscles to be used as fuel. So essentially, simply by standing up, you are actively helping your body to burn fat for fuel. But what is it about the mechanism of standing up that would account for this?
“These are all movements, almost below-threshold kind of movements, that do not burn up a lot of calories, as we know them, but that are designed to work against gravity,” Dr. Vernikos explains.
Dr. Vernikos views gravity a bit differently from the norm. She thinks of gravity as a virtual rod that runs through your body when you’re standing up; down to the center of the Earth. This virtual rod acts as a stimulus for your body, or put another way, gravity is a source of stimulation to your body. When you use it; when you challenge its downward force, you get a sense of acceleration and a sense of fun. Examples include jumping, skipping rope, cycling, downhill skiing, snow- or bodyboarding...
“I’ve come to the conclusion that all the fun activities that we indulge in are based on gravity,” she says. “All these fun activities, all these games and play that we think of, are gravity-dependent. We are using gravity every which way. The moral to the story is be a child again. Have fun. Play!”
On Picking a Better Office Chair... And Standing Up 35 Times a DayA better alternative to the traditional office chair, according to Dr. Vernikos, would be an upright wooden chair with no armrest.
“I will accept the armrest if you promise me that you really rest your elbows on it. You’re not resting your elbows, are you? If you rest your elbows and push them back every so often, which means your shoulder blades are being pushed back, and then you can relax again. But you do it as often as you possibly can. That will correct a lot of your postural problems. But if you sit in a hard back chair, a good old-fashioned chair, it can have a nice comfortable pillow, but it forces you to stand up and to sit up straight,” she says.
In the end, it’s really all about structuring your life to incorporate everyday body movements that your parents and grandparents used to do in the course of day-to-day living: picking stray socks off the floor, stirring a pot of sauce, reaching up high for an item in a cupboard, getting off the couch to change the channel, walking to the mailbox and back. Think about it... if you didn’t have a computer or a smart phone, what would you have to do to get that message to a friend, for example?
Dr. Vernikos calls these types of movements gravity habits or “G habits.” These are all movements that are quantified as non-exercise activities, and the challenge is to get more of them into your daily life. When it comes to interrupting your sitting, you want to stand up around 35 times a day or so to counteract the cardiovascular health risks associated with sitting. This is based on double-blind research where volunteers would spend four days in bed to induce detrimental changes. She then tested two groups to see which was more effective, walking or standing, and how long would you have to walk or how many times do you have to stand up to get better again?
So what I’ve done is this: I found an online timer and set it to go off every 20 minutes. When it goes off, I stand up and do four jump squats. I thought of this after looking at a table of different activities that increase your exposure to gravity in her book. One of them was jumping up and down, which gets you up to six times gravity. Alternatively, I simply stand up really slow and sit really slow five times doing a Foundation posture or I do four or five one legged squats and alternate during each period.
As explained by Dr. Vernikos, squatting is an extension of standing. If you squat and stand, you can get the maximum benefit of working against the force of gravity. By adding jumping to it (going from a squat to a jump, landing into a squat again), you end up with about 6.5 G’s.
However, an interesting update to this interview is that I introduced Dr. Vernikos to Dr. Eric Goodman, the creator of Foundation Training, and she was very excited to learn of his work as she believes it may provide an even more effective solution. They have yet to actually meet at this time but I am hoping they will have a fruitful collaboration and be able to report, at a future date, on a refinement of these current recommendations.
It’s Never Too Late to Start Delaying AgingOne of the most exciting aspects of Dr. Vernikos research is that it shows how dynamic and changeable the human body is. You can reverse damage already incurred, and it’s never too late to start. That is a massively important fact that you want to embrace. Your body CAN recover from the damage you have likely been inflicting on it for decades. Obviously, the younger and healthier you are, the quicker your body will likely respond.
“That’s why I called my first book The G-Connection: Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging,” she says. “[B]ecause yes, you can change what you are. Your body changes all the time. We have new cells being generated all the time – new brain cells – which was thought not to be the case some years ago, as well as new cells everywhere, including skin cells.”
You can boost the gravity stimulus by using either a sway plate, or a whole body vibration plate such as the Power Plate. This can be particularly beneficial for if you’re advancing in age. But other than that, what Dr. Vernikos is advocating is NOT exercise. It’s simply regular movements of everyday life:
“When you’re moving around and you see a speck on the floor, you bend down to pick it up, is that exercise? No. If you reach up to get a book off the shelf or a pot off the cupboard, is it exercise? No. When you brush your teeth, is it better to brush with a brush or with an electric brush? Electric brush already takes away some of the movement that we would normally do with a regular brush. Play golf... [but] don’t take a cart. Carry your golf-bag.”
An important and, I think, fascinating perspective that Dr. Vernikos brings to the table is that if you had to choose between starting up non-exercise activity or starting up an exercise program. Dr. Eric Goodman also believes similarly. He is in fantastic shape. He used to be a personal trainer and body builder but hasn’t worked out formally in many years; he just does his Foundation work throughout each day. They both believe non-exercise activities are more important than regular exercise programs, but ideally you would do both. Dr. Vernikos states:
“Yes, it’s my belief that the non-exercise activities are the foundation of your body tuning and your health, and more important than regular exercise,” she says. “Regular exercise is the next step. You build on the foundation.”
In short, as long as we understand the basic requirements that are dictated by our human ancestors, our biochemistry or genetics, and if we honor those with relatively simple techniques that only take a few minutes a day, it can have dramatic and profound implications on our health, and on the quality and length of our life. To learn more, I highly recommend picking up Dr. Vernikos book, Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, available online at Amazon. It’s an easy read, but it helps to reinforce the concepts discussed in this interview.
Sheila Armitage helps individuals and organizations adopt everyday resilience practices that boost work, home, and health.