MSU researchers study space exercise
East Lansing — It m ay be a while before humans visit Mars, but researchers at Michigan State University are already studying ways to make long-term space travel feasible.
One of the biggest issues facing astronauts today is how months or years in microgravity affect the human body, said Deborah Feltz, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University.
“The concern is what happens to astronauts in terms of their bone density, muscle mass, cardiovascular functions and their sense of isolation when they’re on these long term missions,” Feltz said.
Astronauts in space, she said, “can lose as much bone density in one month as a post-menopausal woman that’s not on any kind of treatment loses in a year.”
In simple terms: Without the everyday stress of Earth’s gravity, many of the basic functions in the human body begin to atrophy.
To keep that from happening, exercise is key, Feltz said. Yet the challenge facing astronauts in space is strikingly similar to the challenge facing many of us on earth: How do you keep up the motivation to do it?
That’s where Lori Ploutz-Snyder, a researcher at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, comes in. She developed an intensive exercise training regimen for astronauts using a stationary bike.
Using that regimen, Feltz and a team of researchers from MSU’s kinesiology, media and information, and psychology departments developed a game-like program specifically designed to keep astronauts motivated during the high-intensity workouts.
Now it’s up to them to see if it works.
To test out the program, Feltz and her team have been recruiting people to participate in a six-month study. For 30 minutes per day, six days a week, participants complete the prescribed workouts on stationary bikes at MSU while researchers track their progress.
Although she couldn’t give away many details because the study is still ongoing, Feltz said the program seeks to mimic exercise conditions astronauts would face on a long mission.
“It’s meant to be intense and it’s meant to be short, because astronauts have lots of things that they need to do,” Feltz said. “They can’t be spending an hour or more on training.”
With limited space on the ship, astronauts would also need to take turns on exercise equipment, and complete their workouts without any social interaction, Feltz said.
The goal, Feltz said, is to turn what could be a chore into something more interesting, more game-like and more enjoyable. Something that “builds in a sense of social-connectedness,” she said, to keep them going even when it’s difficult.
“They work you pretty hard,” said John Person, who participated in the first group of study this past year. “Harder than you probably would if you’re just out there working out on your own.”
Six days a week for six months, Person worked up a sweat each morning on the MSU department of kinesiology’s stationary bikes before showering and heading to his full-time job as the executive director of Hospice of Lansing.
After the program was over, Person used the roughly $900 in compensation he received for being part of the study to pay for a trip to the Tour de France, to watch the international cycling event and ride along some of the same roads.
Person used the fitness he gained to make it to the top of the Col du Tourmalet, a famous hill along the route up the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees.
“That was my motivation to get in shape,” Person said. The study, he said, “gave me the confidence … to tackle something that I’ve wanted to do.”
The fact that he’s helping to advance the space program was a big motivator as well.
“I’m old enough to remember when we went to the moon and how the entire world was focused on that,” he said. “And to think that in some tiny way to be a part of that. … Contributing to knowledge is contributing to the program.”
Feltz is looking for people ages 30 to 60 to join the study who are able to participate in vigorous physical activity.
While the long term study lasts for a total of 24 weeks, Feltz said the occasional missed session or a vacation during that time period is allowed. Participants will receive a “Training like an astronaut” T-shirt and up to $1,000 over 24 weeks, or $6.95 per completed exercise session, in compensation for their time.