Half a century ago, three pioneering astronauts defied gravity. Now scientists believe we can all use gravity to help us exercise and stay healthy, says UK back-pain expert Nichola Adams, MSc Ergonomics, Tech CIEHF, ACPOHE Reg Member
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Man walking on the Moon, after Apollo 11’s lunar module Eagle touched down on 20 July 1969, let’s remember that that historic ‘One small step’ also marked great relief for the intrepid astronauts who’d just spent days cooped up in their capsule. Between the three of them, they spent eight days without gravity, and then had to go through a vibrating fire-ball experience on their return to Earth.
The astronauts brought home Moon samples and their own bodies were also part of an experiment. Weightlessness in space may look like fun, but it turns out gravity is needed to keep our brains and bodies strong. We need the resistance gravity provides to keep our muscles, bones, brain and spine healthy. The lack of gravity is, in fact, equal to being immobilised in bed. The Apollo mission team found that the astronauts’ bodies suffered a similar physical degeneration that’s associated with ageing. Thankfully, once the astronauts returned to their active lives on Earth, they quickly regained full fitness.
These were findings stated by Dr Joan Vernikos, a former Director of NASA’s Life Sciences division, in her book ‘Sitting Kills, Moving Heals’, where she writes: “On Earth, from age 20, we lose roughly 1 per cent of our bone density a year. Yet astronauts in space on average lose 1.6 per cent of their bone density a month, and some have lost as much as 1 per cent in a single week. This is on top of their muscles becoming weaker, their immune systems being suppressed, and their sleep being disturbed. They have less stamina, they shuffle when walking, and they have lost their sense of balance.”
These findings led Dr Vernikos to highlight the importance of simple everyday movements in our daily lives, above and beyond exercise. As our lives become increasingly sedentary, with so much time in front of our computers, Dr Vernikos researched how we can reintroduce gravity-challenging activities into everyday life to improve our long-term health and keep us strong and pain-free. If you are recovering from an illness or surgery, she found that just standing regularly could reverse some of the effects. It is the act of standing that matters, as 'every time you stand up, 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.' Even better though if you can walk, or if this isn't possible, a horizontal ergometer was found to be effective in maintaining stamina.
So, as well as doing a high-intensity exercise a few times a week, like walking, running, bicycling or working out in a gym, taking small, brief yet frequent, muscular movements throughout the day is advised; even just moving while talking and fidgeting. Dr Vernikos uses the following eight examples to demonstrate the idea:
Stretch on waking – even before you get out of bed, rotate your feet, hands and shoulders, then lie down on the floor to stretch out further. This is a great time to do those exercises a physiotherapist might have recommended
Stand up and sit down – try to do this without holding onto anything. Joan states that research indicates that it takes at least 32 posture changes from sitting to standing and back again to maintain healthy blood pressure regulation. Try to do this even when watching TV at home
Squats - done regularly to help build up strength in glutes and thighs, and increased bone density. It will also send blood to your brain as you stand back up.
Stand and walk tall, not slouched. This will prevent the muscles holding the shoulder blades and upper spine from becoming overstretched
Stretch at your desk. To counteract the effects of sitting down for too long, and great for easing tension build-up.
Pull your socks up, without sitting down or leaning on anything
Maintain a ‘head-down’ position. Putting your head down actually gives a boost of oxygen and glucose to your brains nerve cells, so ‘spending limited amounts of time in a head-down position helps the brain remain plastic, forming new cells and connections and staying young’. Or if you exercise vigorously enough the heart will be able to pump more blood up there.
Energise or warm up by just tensing up your body and holding the tension. This is great for waking up before an important meeting.
You can also actually strengthen muscles by willing and visualising your muscles to contract. So, there is no excuse not to build this into your day, too.
The huge achievement of landing on the Moon was made possible by a team of more than 400,000 men and women here on Earth. The mission impacted in many different and powerful ways on the way we live our lives today. And all this took place, let’s not forget, before the launch of the World Wide Web.
So, as you try to harness the power of gravity to keep yourself fit and healthy, don’t feel too daunted by taking on an ambitious daily exercise routine.
Just follow Neil Armstrong’s example – and take one small step at a time.
Stuck in their highchairs, hard-working tennis umpires endure long matches and top the ‘Back Injury Risk’ league, warns UK back-pain expert Nichola Adams, MSc Ergonomics, Tech CIEHF, ACPOHE Reg Member
Whether you’re sat on Centre Court or watching from home, we all love Wimbledon. But spare a thought for the umpires, they’re the ones I pity.
Umpires often have to sit for up to four hours at a stretch in their workstation, perched on uncomfortable chairs, supervising long matches. It’s a tough call.
Tennis players sit down during rest breaks and are allowed between 90 seconds and two minutes’ rest at changeovers. Then they get to stretch their legs running around the court.
Line judges swap ends, have to wave their arms around, bend down, stand up, crouch, keep moving – all excellent for stretching, keeping the body moving and circulation.
Ball boys and girls do a lot of crouching and kneeling, but they also get plenty of exercise, racing around the court and bending to scoop up balls at the net.
And spectators at the match who want to stretch their legs and backs can also do so at any time, en route to a box of strawberries and cream!
But in terms of back injury risk, poor umpires draw the short straw. On top of which, have you seen those umpire seats?! Not a cushion in sight. Are there secret cushions somewhere perhaps?
Umpires constantly have to twist their head from side to side as they watch the ball. At least they can also take the break at the end of each set, which is similar to the ergonomic guideline of at least every 30-60 minutes. I’d say Wimbledon umpires need less tie-breaks and more rest-breaks.
During my 13 years supporting and advising British companies and individuals nationwide on back-pain issues and how to prevent injury, it has been my honour to help around 5,000 clients across the UK.
I always advise them that variety is the key. You should take frequent rest-breaks, (from sitting and standing) and also engage in regular stretching. If you are sitting down in a more comfortable chair watching the game, especially if it is four hours long, just make sure you afford yourself the luxury of supporting your lower back curve so you aren’t slouched down on your office chair or sofa. And stand up every now and again.
Can too much exercise tip the balance? Well, I’m so glad Andy Murray’s hip surgery was a success, giving hope to us all, but I was sorry to hear he was still suffering with a little lower-back pain after a recent doubles match.
Perhaps this is the tail end of the recovery process as his body readapts during the rehabilitation process, or could it just be down to the fact that he'd played 12 matches in 11 days!?
As an ergonomist, I wonder what chairs he’s been sitting on during his recovery. I gather he's a big fan of computer games. If you’re reading this, Andy, I’d advise you don’t spend too long slouched over your laptop.
Out of all those people at Wimbledon 2019, when it comes to being vulnerable to the risk of back injury, unfortunately it’s Game, Set and Match to the umpires.
At Inspired Ergonomics, we have had the privilege of helping people with a huge variety of musculoskeletal issues through our ergonomic consultancy services. We take into account their relevant medical history and explore all ways to reduce postural pain at work. We work with our clients to address the issue at its core, including workstation ergonomics, posture education, exercise, nutrition, rest requirements and signpost on to other specialist support services. In this way we are able to help everyone struggling with general postural issues, as well as more complex, chronic conditions.
It is our passion to reduce the impact of any back issue on a person’s ability to work to their full potential. This includes addressing inflammatory conditions that impact on back health, such as Arthritis.
Indeed, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society recently published their UK wide survey of Adults with rheumatoid arthritis and Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis on the impact of their disease on work. As Professor Karen Walker-Bone states in the foreword ‘employers and managers can make an enormous difference to work accessibility by being supportive of, and flexible with, their employees. This doesn’t need to be expensive and investment in solutions will quickly provide an ROI, as well as creating loyal and hard-working employees when they feel looked after. Reading the case studies emphasises just how important this is. https://www.nras.org.uk/
As the report states, supporting anyone with a health challenge to stay in work, through simple changes and providing help and support, is hugely beneficial to all concerned and benefits society as a whole. I have seen many arthritis sufferers, as well as those with other MSK conditions, struggle for years to stay comfortable whilst at work. Yet education and awareness to simple solutions are highly effective in easing discomfort levels.
The NRAS report states that early intervention and support is essential following diagnosis to prevent the disease or issue potentially leading to job loss. Reported advantages of continuing to work are:
All it requires to look after an employee with a back condition are a few reasonable adjustments to their workstation and work design to ensure an accessible and comfortable working environment
Our ergonomic consultations include the latest in psychological research when dealing with MSK clients and embraces a cross disciplinary approach to dealing with complex MSK cases to empower clients to take a proactive approach in their own recovery process. As back pain is multi-causal, we are passionate in using this diverse approach to bring about meaningful benefit and constantly look at additional ways to improve. When dealing with a chronic condition, it is essential to provide some easy tools to reduce the pain in their everyday lives, tapping into the power of our own brains and reducing dependency on pain killers.
Whenever I go into assess a client with a back issue, 70% of the time they are slouching over at their desk and wondering why they are experiencing pain in their neck, shoulders and lower back.
It is hard to remember to sit up straight all day long, as it is a natural tendency to lean over as we concentrate on our work. Indeed, I often do the same, but I quickly remember to sit back up, as I know the consequences of holding this posture for too long and too often! Having suffered a few back injuries along the way, I know personally the benefit of avoiding compacting down on the spine - if you can avoid doing this, your recovery process which be faster. So if you have a long term issue, such as spondylosis, fibromyalgia, frozen shoulder, RSI, Arthritis, scoliosis, slipped disc, or are just getting pressure build up through the day, it can be hugely beneficial to correct your sitting posture.
There are subtle psychological influences that encourage us to slouch or lean forward, so it is worth checking your workstation and chair set up to help you stay in a healthy position for the majority of the day:
If you would like advise on any of the above, do not hesitate to contact us for more free tips, or arrange for an expert ergonomic workstation consultation visit for bespoke advise. Contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or find more details at www.inspiredergonomics.com
And remember the importance of exercise is real, with long term benefits to not only your general health, but your back health too. Movement is your friend, repeated long term static posture is your enemy!
If you would like to learn more about the importance of Workstation Assessments, see my webinar that was recently recorded for you: http://www.inspiredergonomics.com/msk/
Time and time again, I will visit a client struggling with back pain only to find that their workstation set up is all wrong.
Even when they have all the correct equipment, such as sit stand desks, screen raisers and a good ergonomic chair, they are still struggling with back pain.Read more
We can demonstrate that healthier, happier and nurtured employees perform better, are more dedicated, loyal and become evangelists for your brand. With our focus on desk space and comfort, we free your employees’ minds from any pain distractions that keep them working to their full potential, easing the distress and discomfort that back pain can cause.
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