Efficiency versus Atrophy – Is the Chair our Greatest Health Risk?

How simply everyday movement will prevent pain, illness, and early death ? and exercise alone won?t.

It took a NASA doctor to figure out that the key to good health is all about how we leverage gravity.

Most North Americans are conditioned to view gravity as the enemy. We visualize its disfiguring effects on our aging bodies: sagging skin, breasts, and other dangly parts; drooping eyelids and flapping jowls; stooped shoulders and slumped posture. Our aversion gravity is evident in our cultural devotion to furnishings designed to free us from the rigors of the constant tug toward the center of the earth: from form-fitting office chairs to reclining, plush Barcaloungers, we spend a fortune on furniture that accommodates our need to relax into a moulded cocoon of full-body support for most of the day. Whether we’re watching TV, studying, or performing exacting work on an office computer, our bodies are as limp and free from exertion as if we were sleeping.

As we age, we increasingly adjust our environments to spare our bodies any unnecessary physical stress; we raise the washer and dryer so we don’t have to bend and reach inside; two storey homes are traded in for bungalows to rid ourselves of stairs; we navigate the grocery store in a scooter to make sure our hearts and leg muscles aren’t over-taxed; we can even purchase salad spinners and pepper grinders that use batteries to avoid having to use the smallest fraction of muscle strength for these everyday tasks. Products to make our lives easier are in constant demand.

Clearly there is a notion that sparing our bodies any undue stress will preserve us for a longer, healthier, more comfortable old age. Yet, 1 out of 5 Canadians (mostly women) suffers chronic pain (CBC), four out of five experience back pain at some point in their lives (Chatelaine), one in four Canadians (and one in ten children) are obese (Obesity Network), and heart disease, stroke, and diabetes (all preventable) account for more than 28% of all deaths in the country. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada pulled no punches in 2013, with its new campaign, stating that most Canadians will spend the last 10 years of their lives battling preventable sickness and disease (Make Health Last). Clearly, all our efforts to improve our quality of life are failing miserably.

Dr. Vernikos? findings are that we’re doing it wrong. Gravity is not the enemy. It’s a necessity. Without it, our bodies soften, slump, and atrophy. This makes intuitive sense: in a fully supported, sleep-ready position, It’s no surprise that our metabolisms slow down, inflammation increases, and digestion is sluggish. Our bodies are designed to reduce consumption when we’re at rest.

As Director of NASA’s life sciences division, Vernikos was tasked with studying the degenerative effects of long space flights on NASA astronauts, but it was NASA veteran John Glenn who noted that these effects were strikingly similar to the degeneration of old age that he was studying as part of a national commission on aging. Yet, Vernikos discovered that 77 year-old Glenn fared no better or worse after a long space mission than astronauts half his age. Clearly, age itself was not a contributing factor; the effects of prolonged inactivity cause rapid degeneration in people of all ages.

Vernikos? revolutionary finding is that the average North American’s sedentary lifestyle is producing effects strikingly similar to those experienced by astronauts. By sitting for hours on end in a fully-supported position we’re mimicking the effects of low gravity, and relaxing ourselves into an early grave. Astronauts recover because they resume an active lifestyle once back on terra firma, but most of us don’t, and suffer the consequences.

This makes sense to me: many years ago I was suffering from a back injury sustained during moving. I failed to follow the standard advice about lifting, and twisted my back sharply while wrangling a heavy box into the back seat of a 2-door car. Two days later I was incapacitated by pain and learned that I’d badly crushed a disc. Going forward, I assiduously followed the advice of fitness instructors and doctors to sit out any exercises that might stress my back. After a couple of years my efforts led to a spine like a limp noodle, slumped posture, and chronic back pain. But when I decided to stop babying my back and took up weight lifting, focusing on lifts that used my back muscles (using moderate weights and carefully watching my form to avoid injury), my back pain was resolved in a matter of weeks. I’ve gotten lazy about working out since then and I’m back to square one, but at least I know why. It’s not my body That’s weak: It’s my lifestyle. As Dr. Vernikos notes: ?Astronauts, chosen on the basis of being the healthiest and the fittest?of possessing the ?right stuff??are transformed by the lack of gravity in space into the likes of seniors thirty or forty years older? (Vernikos). Can it really be that simple?

Some may scoff, citing the preponderance of self-promoting scientists who espouse miracle cures for everything from cancer to leaking bladders, but Vernikos is far from a lone voice on this issue; cancer specialist David Agus (The End of Illness, 2012) blames excessive sitting for a variety of cancers and other medical conditions linked to chronic inflammation (he compares extended sitting to smoking in terms of the risk to human health), and The World Health Organisation has made the reduction of physical inactivity its number 3 target for improving global health (WHO).

This may not come as a surprise to most people, but what’s new in Vernikos? and Agus? findings is the discovery that excessive sitting is dangerous even for people who work out on a regular basis: hiking on the weekend or visiting the gym a few times a week simply cannot counteract the damaging effects of spending too much time in a chair at a stretch.

Consider that many of us now spend 7 to 8 hours a day in a chair (or car seat, etc.) at work all day, more time sitting to study, and we spend our relaxation hours on the sofa or in theatre seats. Adding it all up, you might be shocked to realize how many hours you sit at a stretch without standing or crossing the room. But wait ? you may argue ? office jobs have been commonplace for decades, well before the spike in the rate of diabetes and obesity, and television has been popular since the 40s. This is true, but we have to recognize how much these activities have changed in the last 10 to 20 years. The popularization of email is less than 20 years old and many offices didn’t incorporate networking and paperless technologies until the last decade. Prior to the start of the millennium, office workers were much more active: a typical day required multiple trips to the copy or printer room, walking documents down the hall to be signed, dashing to the boss’s office to take dictation, and numerous (sometimes strenuous) sojourns to the file room. Today, all of these tasks can be completed without leaving your chair. TV remote controls have been around longer, but until PVRs came into popular use (just in the last few years), we had to contend with commercials, which allowed us a few minutes to get off the couch and do something. Tellingly, you can now purchase a sofa with an in-arm cup holder to accommodate larger drinks so you don’t have to make a trip to the kitchen all evening.

There is no question that we’re more sedentary than ever before, but knowing this doesn’t solve the practical problem of how to counteract the damage caused by too much chair time. As Vernikos asserts, ?people are more likely to preserver in a lifestyle change if they understand why what they do matters ? [as opposed to being told] what to do? (Vernikos). In the spirit of that sentiment, next week I will summarize some of Vernikos? findings about how sitting affects our bodies, and strategies for overcoming the cycle of atrophy.

Vernikos, Joan Ph.D., Sitting Kills, Moving Heals: How simply everyday movement will prevent pain, illness, and early death ? and exercise alone won’t., Quill Driver Books, 2011

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