Joan Vernikos Keynote ErgoExpo 2015: “Gravity Is Your Friend!”

Joan Vernikos & John Glenn NASA 1996

Joan Vernikos & John Glenn, 1996

The highlight of the ErgoExpo conference in Las Vegas last week (Nov. 17-20) for me was the keynote address by former NASA Life Science’s Director Joan Vernikos.

Joan guided NASA research on biology at NASA for 15 years. Among her many accomplishments there was helping to ensure that John Glenn could return to space at age 77, nearly four decades after he had become the first human to orbit the earth. She continues to apply the lessons she learned at NASA to fight sitting disease.

Her keynote speech “Gravity Is Your Friend!” was vintage Joan – provocative, informative, practical, and inspirational.

“Gravity has gotten a bum rap,” she said early in her talk. We tend to regard the constant tug of gravity as an enemy, reminded of its presence with every passing year as our jowls and other body parts sag. Actually, Joan says, gravity is an important grounding force that guides our posture and influences any number of crucial physiological processes.


NASA researchers mimic the effects of weightlessness by putting subjects in bed for weeks on end with their feet elevated.

She talked about her research at NASA on the effects on the human body of low gravity. After just a few weeks in space, even super-fit astronauts are reduced to frail shells who are prone to fainting as they return to gravity. She showed how terrestrial sedentary behavior can mimic many of the deleterious effects of gravity deprivation in space. As much as two thirds of the U.S. population is unhealthy, and much of that pathology is due to our sedentary, gravity-deprived life- and work-styles.

Her prescription: regularly using gravity as it was intended, by incorporating regular movement back into your day – and by having fun.

Simply Standing Up Can Help

Her research at NASA revealed that the simple act of standing up on a regular basis can counteract many of the physiological mechanisms that underlie sitting disease. Even if you are super-busy or otherwise constrained at work, simply standing up every half hour can mitigate the physiological consequences of ignoring gravity.

Better yet, she says, fill your days with regular high-frequency, low-intensity movement. Stand to talk on the phone. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. This kind of routine moderate-level exercise has been demonstrated to be more effective at promoting long-term health than sporadic vigorous exercise.

Later in her talk, right after she had talked about light and circadian rhythms, she summed up her movement recommendations this way: “When the lights are on and the sun is out, you are supposed to move.”

pole dancer silouhetteAnd, she reiterated several times, don’t forget to have fun. Roller coasters, trampolines, and jump ropes are all fantastic – and fun – gravity-defying activities. The audience appreciated these ideas, but she got probably her biggest laugh when she added to this list a slightly more grown-up activity, showing a slide with a silhouette of a pole dancer.

To assess how you’re faring in your battle with gravity, she demonstrated an exercise that she says is one of the best predictors of longevity and health. Stand in front of a chair and cross your arms across your chest, resting each hand on the opposite shoulder. Then sit down, barely touching the surface of the chair, and immediately stand back up. If you can do this squatting motion 9 to 14 times in 30 seconds, you’re in average shape. Fewer than 9 reps and you need to revisit your fitness regimen, or, as she put it, “You’re in trouble.” Fifteen or more and you’re in good shape (I don’t think of myself as being in top-notch shape, but I was able to do 27 reps in 30 seconds in my hotel room that night).

Joan also talked a bit about the importance of sleep. This section of the talk was way too brief for me, so I’m hoping to get Joan on the air for a podcast interview soon.

Waiting in Line for My Turn with the Star of ErgoExpo

I had arranged to talk with Joan after her speech and budgeted time for the typical 15- to 20-minute wait. It turns out that I had vastly underestimated her popularity. An hour after she had finished her talk there were still adoring fans waiting to talk with her.

Joan Vernikos and Larry Swanson at ErgoExpo 2015

Joan Vernikos and Larry Swanson at ErgoExpo

I first connected with Joan a couple of years ago. Her book “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals” had really helped me clarify my thinking on the importance of routine movement during the work day. I’ll admit that when I first reached out to her on LinkedIn I briefly thought, “Why would a big-shot NASA scientist accept an invitation from an unknown blogger and massage therapist?” I shouldn’t have worried. From our very first interaction, Joan was warm, welcoming, and super-informative. Our first “quick” phone call lasted well over an hour.

Joan became in important source for my office fitness book. When I went in search of someone prominent and like-minded to write the foreword for “Scared Sitless,” hers was the first name on my list. I was delighted when she said yes, and it was a real treat to be able to personally hand her a copy of my book.

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