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Gravity: Friend or Foe?

This article was originally published in Positive Health issueAugust 1998

Would you like to live in a zero or low-gravity environment? I suspect that many, especially the posturally challenged, dream of being free from gravity’s bonds. This dream is the result of the misconception that gravity is the cause of much of our ills. Gravity has a bad press and is usually mentioned in negative terms, such as the “battle against gravity”, “overcoming gravity”, “counteracting gravity”. We are even supposed to possess “antigravity muscles”. From this outlook, life on earth seems to be an exhausting process where much energy is spent opposing the apparent ill effects of gravity. But is gravity our enemy?

According to the famous anatomist Sir Arthur Keith, if we suffer from flat feet, slipped discs, hernias, prolapses, malposture and other calamities, it is because of our evolutionary adoption of uprightness. Many other authors agree with this pessimistic view that uprightness is not compatible with gravity. I beg to differ. To me gravity is a positive force to which we are perfectly well adapted. We are the offsprings of gravity; we have not attained uprightness against, but with it.

Let’s brush up on some basic laws of Physics. An object is in a state of equilibrium when its centre of gravity is over its base of support. When you put a candlestick on the table, gravity holds it there, with no effort on the part of the candlestick. The same law applies to our bodies. In the standing position, our base of support is made of the area formed by our feet. As long as our centre of gravity is over this “area of underpropping” we are in a state of equilibrium; we are supported by the benevolent force of gravity. The standing position is mainly a ligamentous business, with only slight occasional muscular activity when equilibrium is jeopardised.

In spite of these basic laws of equilibrium and gravity, there is a widespread belief that, in the standing position, the force of gravity pushes us forward. To prevent us from falling on our nose Nature would have equipped our back with a powerful extensor mechanism: antigravity muscles supposed to counteract this nasty forward push. Thanks to our back muscles we would have overcome gravity and achieved the erect posture. The success of this theory is understandable. Although we are the architects, through misuse, of most of our postural defects, it is very tempting for the ego to find a scapegoat, easier to blame gravity, an outsider, than ourselves. However, this theory does not square up with the facts.

First, why should the body fall more forward than backward? Although the organs are in front, the line of gravity splits the body in two almost equal halves. Moreover, our feet, as you would not have failed to notice, are directed forward. If there was any tendency to fall, it should be backward rather than forward. Secondly, it is purely a theoretical view that we have extensor muscles in our back. To extend means to straighten, to stretch out. Being behind our spine our back muscles do the opposite, they bend it backward. A true extensor muscle would have to be attached at the top of our skull (to the ceiling?), but we have not yet evolved this mythical muscle!

The force that pulls us down does not come from without but from within. The so-called “antigravity” muscles (the back muscles) are in fact the culprit. In a condition of misuse, they are anti-lengthening muscles. To understand how they do that, let’s look again how we stand. The natural, correct standing position is a precarious one because the gravity centre is a long way over a small perimeter formed by the heels only. (It is worth noting in this connection that, in Man, the heel bone is thicker and larger than in anthropoid apes.) After all we are not of the plant kingdom that has chosen immobility as a way of life. Therefore, the standing position does not need to be a very stable one. What we lose in stability, we gain in dynamism, lightness and readiness for action. Unfortunately, civilised man has developed a regrettable taste for stability, for a false sense of comfort.

In the standing position increased stability is achieved by enlarging the base of support. To do so Man must lose verticality and bring forward his centre of gravity by displacing the different segments of his body: pelvis forward, upper back backward, neck forward, head backward. When this is done the centre of gravity is no longer over the heels but over the whole surface of the feet. This is a common form of misuse in the art of standing, and this bad posture always results in a shortened stature. Yet gravity is still on our side, faithfully keeping us on the ground. When you shorten your stature you make, in a way, good use of gravity, if what you want is a stable equilibrium.

But there is a heavy price to pay in choosing stability versus verticality. In effect, when you shorten your stature you also invite the shortening of your back muscles (and the flabbiness of the front ones). The back muscles are not lazy, they are always at work.

Shorten your stature and they will adaptively shorten. Slowly, progressively, they retract. When you glance at yourself in a mirror and realise you are slouching, you make an effort to straighten yourself and feel a strong resistance. The effort required to lengthen your spine does not come from gravity pressing on the top of your head but from your own muscles that you have allowed to shorten.

If you have doubts about my ramblings, talk to astronauts: they have a first-hand experience of the effects of weightlessness.

Astronauts who went to the moon where gravity is much less than it is on earth, came back home with back-aches. They obviously could not blame gravity. Apart from back-aches, astronauts also suffer from dizziness and nausea. Don’t also forget that the earth is not flat anymore. Without gravity, Australians would be falling off the earth and you would be floating in a weightless, but nauseating, world. Just think about the gravity of the situation. Are you still tempted by a gravity-free world?

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