New exercise program aims to keep astronauts in better condition in space

Topic: College of Applied Sciences and Technology

September 9, 2013

Astronauts are being studied after returning to Earth from the International Space Station to determine if they are in better physical condition as a result of a new high intensity exercise program that Ball State University researchers helped to design.

Previous studies by Ball State's research team, in collaboration with NASA, have shown that a high volume, moderate intensity exercise program was insufficient to completely protect skeletal muscle health among ISS crewmembers aboard the orbiting outpost for six months or more.

Scott Trappe, HPL director and John and Janice Fisher professor of exercise science, and Todd Trappe, exercise science professor, are leading a team looking at skeletal muscle health of American, Russian and other crewmembers before and after six-month stays on the International Space Station (ISS).

“We found that benefits of exercise were there but astronauts were only getting half the protection NASA wanted,” said Scott Trappe. “We now have a more complete, robust countermeasure that allows the astronauts to train more like athletes. They are working hard for an hour a day. We think we are moving in the right direction.”

The Trappes will travel to Houston Sept. 9-13 as part of a team to conduct tests on a returning crewmember from Expedition 35/36. The pair will take muscle biopsies from the upper and lower leg to be examined in the HPL.

“The crewmember was very fit prior to going to space,” Scott Trappe said. “While everyone reacts to the equipment and exercise in a different way, it will be interesting to see how well muscle strength was maintained.”

Tests of the first ISS astronauts found several suffered health problems, including loss of bone density, muscle strength and endurance, along with sensory-motor function and aerobic capacity. Each was caused by absence of Earth’s gravity.

To counteract such health problems, NASA developed the ECP as part of the Human Research Program. The program is charged with developing exercises and hardware to maintain astronaut health and fitness during long-duration space missions.

Ball State and other researchers have worked closely with NASA engineers and scientists on the project, taking into consideration constraints on equipment size, exercise volume and power consumption imposed by the spacecraft and its inhabitants.

Exercise equipment on the ISS now includes the resistance system, recumbent bicycle and treadmill.

Ball State’s approach to developing an exercise protocol is similar to the modifications HPL researchers made when they began to examine how older adults benefited from working out.

“Back in the 1980s, a lot of older folks weren’t responsive to exercise because they weren’t working very hard and were afraid to get hurt,” Todd Trappe said. “We had that with the first 10 years of the International Space Station. We didn’t want to get the astronauts hurt, but they need to ramp up the intensity to see better results.

“The new protocols are more efficient than in the past,” he said. “We were surprised that ISS crew members worked from early morning to late evening and were allocated about two and half hours a day to set up the equipment, exercise and clean up. But, the new program allows them to get their exercise done much faster. They are happy to have the time to concentrate on their scientific work.”

HPL researchers have been involved in the research since the mid-1990s when they performed pre- and post-flight examinations of American astronauts flying on the space shuttle.

HPL researchers are also working with NASA on a bed rest study, collaborating with Johnson Space Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch on a ground-based long-duration program that will closely mimic the exercise program and human health goals of the space flight project. HPL conducted a similar bed rest study in 2005 in cooperation with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French Space Agency (CNES).

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