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If human beings were designed to live in space, we would have been born in space suits—or at least without these giant, needy lungs. Instead, every tiny and seemingly insignificant aspects of our bodies are designed to exist and flourish under the multitude of gravity’s effects, most of which carry on unnoticed all day long.
The team here at Zen Space Desks are not the only ones who have noticed a correlation between sitting all day and living in space. We spend our entire lives working against gravity (or at least we used to), and our bodies have evolved specifically for the challenge, flourishing under the force. So it should come as no surprise that the human body completely transforms when gravity is no longer present, causing huge health problems, only some of which can be restored. Soaring off to Mars might seem incomparably physically stressful, but you might be surprised by how much it has in common with months of motionless sitting.
We’re only just beginning to study the short and long-term effects of sedentary lifestyles, which don’t deal with gravity nearly as much as physically active bodies. But we can take some hints from astronauts, and learn about how bodies in space respond to zero gravity. As it turns out, the effects of space travel are not dissimilar to the effects of prolonged sitting. Bodies escaping gravity in space or in office chairs need to take similar precautions to maintain a healthy body, mind, and soul.
Gravity and the Human Design
Our spines are designed to stand straight and tall under the press of gravity, keeping our shoulders and heads upright without our having to think about it. The rest of our bones respond with strength to the force of gravity when colliding with the ground and other objects countless times throughout the day, when we walk, stand, run, and jump. More than half of our skeletal structure is dedicated to dealing with gravity. Constantly countering the force of gravity is precisely what keeps our bones dense and strong.
As human society grows and develops, we are distancing ourselves from our primal and natural states to create more artificial lives that are steeped in comfort and convenience. Development and evolution are both positive forces to be sure, but our bodies haven’t adapted to stay seated just yet. Spending all day in a chair is much like spending time in space. Our bodies just weren’t made for it, and we have to utilize tools and resources as much as possible to keep from losing both mental and motor function.
If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It
If you treat your muscles and bones like they are useless, it won’t take long for them to actually become useless. We’ve all seen how our unused abdomens flop right back into flab when we’ve been lax at the gym or yoga practice. It happens to bedridden patients, which is why they need physical therapists to stimulate muscles and maintain bone density as much as possible.
Without a health intervention, space and sedentary habits alike cause the human body to lose muscle tone and gain fat cells, as metabolism slows and the body sends its resources anywhere else where they might be more useful. Of course, losing muscle mass is far from being a simple cosmetic issue. Don’t forget that the heart and other major organs are muscles, too, which weaken over time right alongside biceps and pectoral muscles.
Even when this loss doesn’t cause heart failure, it can exacerbate otherwise minor issues. Bones, too, lose major mass in sedentary and zero gravity environments, leaving you susceptible to osteoporosis and breakage. The losses at stake here are significant. Studies show that in space bones atrophy at the extraordinary rate of about 1% of a month, with between 40 and 60 percent of total bone loss at stake. Muscle tone goes even faster, as quickly as 5% a week in some studies.
Even the blood in our circulatory system needs gravity to work correctly. Our bodies are familiar with blood in the feet, where it pools and settles under normal conditions. In space or an office chair, the circulatory system conspires to maintain blood pressure higher in our feet than our heads and responds when the opposite is true. Without exercise and the familiar pull of blood down to the feet, total blood volume can drop, which can cause the heart to atrophy. Starting to feel motivated to invest in a standing desk? Check out our previous post on How to Choose a Standing Desk for some pointers.
Return To Nature
Office workers and astronauts everywhere can rejoice. Much of what is lost or at risk of atrophying can be maintained or restored with attentive, intentional care. NASA sends its astronauts out with exercise equipment including an in-ship treadmill in order to keep the body active and healthy. And when the astronauts used the equipment, they came back nearly as healthy as they did before they left.
Our bodies are so resilient. They are just waiting for the chance to do what they were born to do: work and play under the influence of gravity. So give them a chance, and stop being static.
Change positions often, and don’t overcommit to standing just because we talk so much about how bad sitting down is. It’s important to do both because it’s the act of standing up (rather than the time spent standing) which stimulates the nerves and increases blood pressure and blood volume. Instead of standing still for long periods of time, try changing positions a few times an hour.
NASA’s results regarding the health of homebound astronauts are hopeful. Bones take longer than blood and muscle, and it’s unclear whether several years provide adequate healing time, or if the damage done is permanent. But it seems that there’s a path to healing, which is the important part.
If rocket scientists and astronauts can keep their bodies healthy in space, in the total absence of gravity, surely we can protect ourselves from similar issues here on Earth. Take a lesson from Mars and use your body as it was designed before you lose the things that make it uniquely human! If you want to learn more about the prolonged effects of space flight on the human body, you can view the NASA study here.