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Exercise

The Zero Gravity Lesson We Learned from Astronauts

By Roger Landry, MD, MPH

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Up to 70% of us are classified as “sedentary” by the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. “Sedentary” means “sitting” or “with little movement.” According to an Institute for Medicine and Public Health poll, Americans spend an average of 56 hours a week staring at a computer screen, riding in a car, or sitting in front of TV. An A.C. Nielsen Co. report tells us the average person spends about 60 hours a week “viewing content across various platforms,” which is more often than not, sitting.

This IS a problem because humans are meant to move … designed to move. For ninety-nine percent of the time, our species has existed … we walked the earth. Our hunter-gatherer and agrarian ancestors moved in order to survive, and moved a lot. We humans are around today because they did, and we have inherited an innate need to move in order for our bodies and brains to function as they should.  

So, when the Apollo astronauts first went into space for more than a day or two, on at least two occasions our American finest … highly screened and trained space athletes … had to be carried out of the recovery helicopters on stretchers. What was going on there? NASA didn’t know then, but we surely know now. It’s zero gravity … weightlessness. You see, if I want to move in space, a flick of the finger can set me in motion and I can float effortlessly to wherever I want to go. No muscle power is needed. My heart, also a muscle, can take a vacation since pumping blood against no resistance is like sipping a Mai Tai in a chaise lounge. Also, our bones aren’t quite as important either so they begin to not need quite as much calcium and become less strong.

The problem is that we earthlings have succeeded in creating our own brand of weightlessness. We had the view that the more progress we made as a society, the more each of us became successful, the less we would have to move. So, we created automobiles, elevators, escalators, people movers, drive-thru’s, TVs, sofas, and computers. We’ve become sedentary, and that takes us away from the basic need to move we inherited and consequently raises our risk for a slew of conditions that I guarantee you will not welcome.

Rather than movement being a core and essential part of our lifestyle, those of us that try to stay healthy now schedule movement, as a workout or exercise. That’s very helpful and definitely can lower our risk, but recent research brings into question whether that’s enough. Exercise Sport Science Review reported on research, which raised the possibility that even if we are among the minority that actually “works out,” prolonged sitting can compromise our health and increase premature mortality risk. I know that is going to come as a shock to many of my friends. 

Therefore, just as space is a foreign environment for us humans and is potentially life threatening, so too is prolonged sitting or lack of movement. Before you buy a new pair of running shoes, join a gym, or sign up for a marathon, however, let’s take a step back and talk about the benefits of moving, because this is what will keep you going after you’ve long forgotten about this article. 

When we move, we feel better, we think better, we look better, and we earn more money … well, maybe not the last one, but indeed life seems much more enjoyable. You’ve experienced this during those times when you were more active, right? But if that’s not enough, then how about reducing the likelihood of heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and falling? Indeed, these outcomes are well documented in the medical research literature.

OK. You’ve decided you need to move more. Don’t fall into the trap of making a New Years resolution-type grand gesture. Start slowly and be patient. The only way to make movement a lifestyle change that will stick is to make changes that you can live with … that fit into your life and are enjoyable. All else will fall by the wayside as soon as House of Cards comes out with their next season. So, here’s a plan to consider:

1)    Buy a pedometer. These are available in sports stores and enable you to count your steps.

2)    Wear the pedometer for a week of your usual activities and record the number of steps you take each day. Don’t cheat. Make it your usual week.

3)    Average the number of steps you took each day for that week. (Total steps for all days divided by seven.)

4)    Set a goal of increasing that average number of steps by a small amount – say 100 steps – per day.

5)    Look for opportunities to add steps. For example, park further away from the door, take the stairs, walk vs. ride, take a walk, walk during phone calls, walk in place during TV commercials.

6)    Once a new average is established, set a goal to increase the number of steps by a very small amount. If you don’t make your goal, lower that goal, but keep increasing the number of steps you take a day.

In a short time, you will feel so much better that you’ll be looking forward to moving. You will have changed your orbit into one with a bright future for aging more successfully. OK, three … two … one … Blastoff to better health!

Dr. Roger Landry just released Live Long, Die Short: A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging, whichhas received endorsements from MORE and AARP magazine. Hereceived his MD at Tufts University School of Medicine and his MPH 9 (Masters in Public Health) at Harvard University School of Public Health.  He is currently the President of Masterpiece Living, a group of multi-discipline specialists in aging who partner with communities to assist them in becoming destinations for continued growth. Dr. Landry was a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force for over 22 years and retired as a highly-decorated full colonel and chief flight surgeon at the Air Force Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, DC. His work took place on five continents and he was medically involved in a number of significant world events including: Vietnam, the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, the Beirut bombing of the Marine Barracks, the first seven Shuttle launches, and the first manned balloon crossing of the Pacific. He was a member of a group awarded a grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living by Design initiative to make cities more healthy and livable.