Movement is key to being healthy says former NASA researcher
A centrifuge used to study the effects of being in micro-gravity. (Dr. Joan Vernikos)
CALGARY — Staying healthy can be as simple as standing up.
That was the message from Dr. Joan Vernikos, the former director of life sciences at NASA, during two talks at Fitterfirst in Calgary this week.
Vernikos has spent decades researching how living in micro-gravity can be detrimental to the health of astronauts, and says there are parallels to life on Earth.
Pushing against gravity – which includes doing something as simple as standing up — every 30 minutes or so is necessary to stay healthy, she said.
“When I started out I was looking at how being in space affected the human body and it changes an awful lot, all of it not very good,” she said.
“For instance you lose bone, you lose muscle, you lose blood volume, your aerobic capacity is reduced, your heart gets smaller and weaker, your circulation is more sluggish, your sleep is affected, your immune system is suppressed and on and on and on.
“It’s not a happy scene, so we needed to figure out first of all, how to help astronauts, and secondly, how we could find a model where we could mimic reduced gravity on earth.”
With gravity all around us here on earth, accomplishing the second goal presented a unique problem, said Vernikos.
So researchers came up with a unique solution.
“It works like this, if I stand up, gravity is pulling down through my body from head to toe, right to the centre of the earth," said Vernikos. "We call that one G.”
“But if I lie down, then gravity is only pulling across my chest, which is a much reduced distance, and that model of lying down in bed continuously has served as an excellent model because it produces exactly the same changes we see in space, but of course it’s slightly milder and takes longer to develop.”
To stay healthy, Vernikos says people should simply get moving, against gravity.
“Lifting weights is OK, jumping is OK, skipping rope is excellent,” she said.
“Any activity that involves jumping … any form of dancing … any sport that is vertical.
“Basically what we’re saying is play. We need to go back to tumbling and (handstands) and hop scotch, all the fun things.”
The more you do, the better off you'll be, said Vernikos. And moving every 30 minutes or so is key.
“It’s really very simple,” she said.
“It’s not the hours of sitting, it’s how many uninterrupted hours you do. If you interrupt the sitting every 30 minutes, you won’t have the nasty effects of sitting continuously without interruption.”