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.