“Sitting is the new smoking,” former NASA scientist says at Second Friday at the Library talk. “No, it’s worse.”
One would assume that a best-kept secret to a long and healthy life would be somewhat technical — given it was revealed by NASA’s former director of life sciences to a Rappahannock County audience last Friday.
Think again. And don’t be sitting down while you read this.
Joan Vernikos, who has devoted most of her life to the health and safety of our astronauts, has been a fellow of the Aerospace Medical Association, and member of both the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board and the International Academy of Astronautics.
She has published over 200 scientific papers and reviews, served on the editorial boards of scientific journals, written books including the G-Connection: Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging (winner of the Life Sciences Book Award), and is the holder of three patents, including one for the Human Powered Centrifuge.
Then there are her myriad accomplishments in academia, including lecturing and teaching at the Ohio State Medical School, Stanford University, Wright State University School of Medicine, and the University of London.
Mostly though, starting in 1964, Vernikos has worked in the U.S. space program, directing research and studies on the impact that space travel has on the human body.
And now she’s bringing her research results from space back to earth, to help everyday Americans live “active” and “independent” lives through healthy aging.
So what’s the secret?
“Stand up!” Vernikos said quite simply.
“Sitting is the new smoking,” she explained. “No, it’s worse. Sitting is shown to be related to every medical condition we know. Biologically we as humans are designed to move. For aging and independence we need mobility. Stand up, and stand up often!”
To demonstrate for her audience at RAAC’s Second Friday at the Library lecture series how easy it is to immediately improve one’s health the scientist pulled an empty chair to the front of the room, sat down, and stood up.
Folding her arms to her chest, she repeated the motion several times — sitting down and standing up again — encouraging her audience to do the same thing for 30 seconds of every half-hour of every day.
It’s that simple, Vernikos said.
“We sit too much,” she pointed out, describing how modern inventions and devices like TV remote controls, cell phones, and microwave ovens “encourage us to move less and less.”
“Align yourself with gravity. Gravity helps us,” she educated. “Don’t use gravity to sit down or lie down. If you have to be sitting down, sit up straight. If you’re sitting at a computer put a book on your head. If the book falls off you know you need to straighten up.”
Besides other health benefits, Vernikos explained that the motion of standing up increases blood flow to the brain. Not the head, she stressed, but the brain.
“Standing up is the best way to increase blood flow to the brain. This is terribly important as we age,” she said, particularly given the increased likelihood of dementia and Alzheimer’s. “The brain needs glucose and oxygen. Blood provides this.”
And no, she answered to one question, working on a puzzle or reading a book might stimulate a few nerves of the brain, but it doesn’t supply the vital organ with blood.
As for exercise?
“Exercising once a day doesn’t do it,” she replied to another person in the audience. “You can be healthy by just moving, and you can be healthy without being fit. Just make a habit of moving.”
Unfortunately, she also said, people tend to reach the age of 20 and they stop “playing.” She admonished her audience to “go back to playing — go swing on a swing! There are all these empty school playgrounds. Go hiking, go biking. We have to take charge of our own life and health.”
She concluded her remarks by recalling the incredible case of George Edwin Mueller, associate administrator of the NASA Office of Manned Space Flight from 1963 until 1969 (he died in 2015 at the age of 97). Hailed as one of NASA’s “most brilliant and fearless managers,” Mueller played a key role in the design and development of both the Space Shuttle and Skylab.
Unbeknownst to Vernikos, Mueller several years ago was sitting in the audience when she was called to the dais to accept an award surrounding her research on healthy aging. As she returned to her seat, Mueller reached from his table into the aisle and asked Vernikos, “So, what’s the answer?”
“Stand up!” she told him. “Get up every half hour!”
Only when she got back to her table did she realize that it was Mueller himself who had asked her the question — and she was mortified to see that the NASA legend was seated in a wheelchair.
Three months passed and Vernikos received a message from a colleague who had been invited to Mueller’s home for dinner. And there was Mueller, standing at the door to greet his guests. He went on to serve them their drinks and meal.
Vernikos said when Mueller’s wife was asked about her husband’s amazing turnaround, she replied: “He did it all by himself. He stood up every 30 minutes.”