The benefits of frequent low intensity movement: lessons from space

What words come to mind when you see the word ‘astronaut’?Β 

Smart? Physically fit? Lean? Healthy?

Not exactly the same words you’d use to describe your average, sedentary North American, right?

Yet astronauts and physically inactive adults have a heck of a lot in common. Once the astronaut returns to earth, that is.

Recently, I was sent a copy of the book Sitting Kills Moving Heals, written by Joan Vernikos, former Director of Life Sciences at NASA. Dr. Vernikos has spent most of her career studying the effects of the lack of gravity on the health and wellness of astronauts.

sitting kills moving heals

Remarkably, after only 14 days in space, astronauts frequently exhibit

  • a 25% reduction in aerobic capacity
  • decreased bone density (up to 5% per month)
  • decreased muscled mass and muscle strength (1% per month)
  • stooped posture
  • increased fatiguability
  • decreased cardiac output
  • decreased heart stroke volume
  • reduced sensitivity to insulin (as seen in diabetics)
  • decreased testosterone
  • decreased growth hormone
  • aching joints

In short, many of the same changes we observe in sedentary individuals as they age, even though those individuals have never left the earth’s gravitational field (that we know of; alien abductions, not withstanding…).

Not content to merely catalogue the litany of symptoms astronauts returned to earth with, Dr. Vernikos has also studied the types of exercise programs astronauts need to follow to minimize, prevent and recover from these zero-gravity induced changes.

Surprisingly, her research supports the claim that frequent, low intensity movements performed repeatedly throughout the day are better are combatting Β the effects of zero gravity on health than short duration, high intensity workouts.

What does that mean for our average, sedentary adult? Worry more about walking and bending and stretching and reaching than getting to the gym three times a week if you want to get stronger, healthier and perhaps, lose weight. For example;

  • taking the stairs rather than the elevator
  • hang your clothes out to dry
  • vacuum and wash the floor (yourself; it doesn’t count if you have a cleaning lady…)
  • walk, don’t drive, to the mailbox
  • carry your groceries in a basket rather than pushing a cart
  • use a push mower rather than an electric mower to cut your grass

While the general premise of this book is not new (‘move more’, ‘walk more’, ‘increase your daily activity’ have all been prescribed by many, many fitness professionals), what is new (and interesting to me!), is the demonstration that previously fit individuals can reverse the damage of a sedentary lifestyle without embarking on a high intensity exercise program.

(And if you’re at all intrigued about life in space, there are lots of fun sidebars with info about eating and sleeping under zero-gravity).

Moving more, every day, all day is a goal that should be attainable for all!

Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of this book to read and review. All views and opinions in this review are my own.

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  1. Im the queeeen of low intensity.

    19 years later it’s still working.
    you can TELL IM NOT A COMPETITOR πŸ™‚ but thats not my goal.
    MIzMiz recently posted…HOW and WHY to foam roll (guest post).My Profile

  2. Interesting read for sure! Thanks for the review and thoughts
    Kierston recently posted…7 Weeks Out: Turn Your Can’ts into Cans!My Profile

  3. This is really interesting, thanks! I’ll have to check out the book. I’ve certainly never though about the similarities between astronauts and sedentary people.
    Krissy recently posted…Rewarding Weight LossMy Profile

    • Of course, the main difference between sedentary people and astronauts is gravity. I’m not completely convinced that you can compare the two. However, suggestions about how to incorporate more movement into our lives are always welcome!

  4. Very interesting information, Tamara. Movement really is key. We can’t just exercise once in the morning and call it a day. We need to get up out of the chair several times a day.
    Carrie Rubin recently posted…Collage Video, For An Introverted ExerciserMy Profile

    • And that’s hard for a writer isn’t it Carrie? I find it quite the conundrum; ever since I started blogging, I move less during the day and rely on my official workouts to do all the work for me!

      • I really love my plastic treadmill shelf. I can rest my laptop on it (it straps in place) and walk at a very low speed (about 2.3 mph) while I write. It’s not aerobic exercise by any means, but that’s not the intention. The intention is to incorporate movement to avoid the “sitting disease.” Of course, I would love one of those fancy, several thousand dollar treadmill desks out there, but I settled for a $40 plastic shelf to put on the treadmill I already have. Much more affordable. πŸ˜‰ It’s better on my back, too, as I find sitting at a desk too long makes my rhomboids cry.
        Carrie Rubin recently posted…Collage Video, For An Introverted ExerciserMy Profile

  5. I am there! I am not a great cleaner but I do the other stuff AND the gym! Great post Tamara & more importantly – very important advice for all not matter how young or old! πŸ™‚
    Jody – Fit at 54 recently posted…Challenges on the Blogs – Do You Do ThemMy Profile

  6. I always enjoy stats, so reading this was fun and a bit of a freak out too. Only 14 days in space and the deterioration starst! Wow!
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…End of Summer Trip to Rancho la PuertaMy Profile

    • I was shocked too! And the after effects of zero-gravity are very interesting. Loss of proprioception, so balance is way off. In one test they perform on returning astronauts, they make them stand on a platform that tilts. Even when the tilt is so severe as to cause them to fall forward, they fail to put their hands out in front to break the fall. They claim not to feel the sensations associated with falling! Very strange!


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