Out of this World Fitness



I just saw the new movie, Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan. Just in case you don’t know me, I’m a huge Batman fan, and I really enjoyed the trilogy of movies that Nolan directed about the Dark Knight. When I heard he was going to be directing a movie about space travel, I was very excited. When I heard that theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne was on board as a consultant, I was even more thrilled. Upon hearing that the movie would touch upon topics such as wormholes, black holes, and space-time, I could barely contain my inner nerd. Sure, it’s fun watching a bunch of aliens battling each other through the galaxy with high tech spaceships and massive explosions, but I was interested in seeing a movie that portrayed space travel in a more realistic/theoretical manner. For those of you who don’t know, the movie plot revolves around the idea that humans need to find a new home. The earth’s resources are being used up, the food supply is dwindling, and the climate is changing. With the use of a wormhole, a group of explorers can travel the vast distances of space to find a new planet to call home. I’m not here to review it, and so far the reviews have been a bit divisive. I think some people will appreciate it, and some will not. What does this have to do with fitness? I am getting there. It made me ponder what kind of fitness we would want/need to attain before heading on a long voyage in space. Let’s first look at what is required to become an astronaut.

First off, an astronaut must have a degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. The degree must be followed up with three years of related work experience, or for pilots, a minimum of 1,000 hours of flight time. NASA puts candidates through a long duration space flight physical which includes the following requirements. Visual acuity must be correctable to 20/20 in each eye, blood pressure cannot exceed 140/90 in a seated position, and standing height must be 62 to 75 inches. They are also tested for space travel induced motion sickness, which involves riding in a specialized plane, known as the “vomit comet”, which ascends to 34,000 feet over the gulf of Mexico, and then follows a flight path consisting of 32 arcs, which provides weightlessness similar to space travel on each descent. The astronauts will use these flights for training, so they can adapt to a micro-gravity environment. The motion sickness is often caused from traveling through different levels of gravity. They are also tested for cardiovascular risk, as a micro-gravity environment can cause body fluids to shift, heart rhythm disturbances, and a decrease in maximal exercise capacity. Astronauts are not expected to be superhuman, but they must meet the specific requirements for their own personal safety, and the safety of their crew. Although I am looking more at just the physical aspects, psychological tests are also done to make sure that the candidates do not suffer from mental disorders, and can handle the danger and isolation of space travel.

What kind of physical effects does spending time on long duration space flights have on the human body? There are two major negative consequences that happen from time spent in the micro-gravity environment of space, which are bone and muscle loss. Research done on humans who spent months on the space station Mir, experienced bone loss of an average of 1 to 2 percent each month. The diminishing bone mass can be verified by rising levels of calcium in the blood. Most of the bone degeneration takes place in the lumbar spine and legs. Genetics plays a part, and while some were less affected, some have lost as much as 20 percent. If losing bone wasn’t enough, astronauts are also losing muscle mass. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology from Ball State University suggests that astronaut workouts need to be modified to avoid extensive muscle loss. Muscle biopsies were taken from astronauts who had completed long flight missions. Just for reference, a typical stay at the International Space Station (ISS) is 6 months. Even though crew members had exercised, they lost an average of 15% muscle mass, and 20 to 30% loss of muscle performance. This massive loss is similar to comparing muscle mass and performance of a 20 year old to an 80 year old. Significant muscle loss during long duration space travel would negatively affect the ability of an astronaut to perform their duties and complete their mission. Scott Trappe, the Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) director at Ball State University says they need the right mix of aerobic exercise combined with high intensity resistance training as counter measures to muscle loss. In November 2008, NASA delivered the Advanced Resistance Exercise Device (ARED) to the ISS, which allows astronauts to exercise at higher workloads and intensity. The resistance can be adjusted and is provided by a vacuum. NASA is working hard with Universities to get a better strength and conditioning program created for their astronauts. It appears that the key to these workouts which offsets bone and muscle loss is “high intensity”.

There are several examples of the kind of workouts that NASA is starting to use for their explorers. Kansas State University researchers began a 3 year study in 2011 to help NASA design an obstacle course workout to measure fatigue. The obstacle course involves climbing, weighted sled pulling, running, cutting through agility poles, step overs/duck unders, lifting objects, tightening/loosening valves, balance walk on beams, and pushing a weighted cart around obstacles (including loading and unloading objects in the cart), all done while wearing a helmet and mask(to measure performance). They found that they could run the participants through one test that would give them a good idea of how they would perform in the obstacle course. What was the test you ask? They had the test subjects run as fast as they could at a track for 3 minutes, and the researchers could predict obstacle course performance off of that test. In 2013, NASA launched the “train like an astronaut” series featuring astronaut, Mike Hopkins. He talks about focusing on the big, multi-joint lifts to help combat the bone and muscle loss. Take a look at the following videos for an introduction to the ARED, Treadmill, Calibrated Ergometer with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization (CEVIS) and even see Mike Hopkins workout in space with the advanced equipment. Up in space, he performs several CrossFit workouts. As mentioned earlier, the key to combating the negative effects of micro-gravity on the body, is intense workouts. The CrossFit workouts combine high intensity resistance training with an aerobic/anaerobic component.

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Maybe you don’t have any long duration space flights planned in your future, and you are wondering what this has to do with those of us on Earth, with our feet firmly planted on the ground. Muscle and bone loss happens quite rapidly in space, but it also happens down here on Earth. The progression is slower, but it takes place over our lifetime, as we age. The effects of micro-gravity in space can help us understand how to better combat this atrophy of the body down here. Millions suffer from Osteoporosis on our planet. One out of three adults over the age of 65, falls each year, and falling is the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries, according to the CDC. I have worked with elderly clients who have suffered falls and it’s a tough road back to recovery. A study out of Croatia by nikolic and colleagues, looked at muscle loss in the elderly. Muscle loss from age 24 to 50 is about 10 percent, it increases to 30 percent loss from ages 50 to 80. Type II muscle fibers are most significantly affected, from an average of 60 percent in young men, to below 30 percent after age 80. “Same studies indicate that 40% of the female population aged 55–64 years, 45% of women aged 65–74 years, and 65% of women aged 75–84 years were unable to lift 4.5 kg (9.9 lbs).” What can we do to offset or reduce these affects of aging?

Whether we are looking to stay strong and independent into old age, or we want to explore the outer edges of the galaxy, there are steps we should take now.

  • Strength Train. I am not talking about using machines, unless you are going to be at the ISS. I am talking about the big, multi-joint exercises. When I train people, I don’t care what age they are, they are going to do some type of hip hinge/deadlift, squats, press, pulling exercise, and weighted carries. The exception is someone with an injury, disability, or health condition. The other key is making sure the load is progressive. To build strength and maintain it, you have to work with some form of resistance. You read the stat above, a high percentage of elderly women can’t lift 10 lbs. If you want to be able to lift 10 lbs or more (which I believe everyone should), you have to lift weights equal to or greater than that resistance. Tracy Anderson’s 3 lb dumbells aren’t going to get the job done.
  • Cardio Conditioning. It’s important to strengthen the heart and lungs to keep yourself performing at peak levels. Respiratory muscles atrophy as we age so it’s important to challenge those muscles on a fairly consistent basis. If you are constantly winded from activity, it makes it difficult to complete your mission or perform your daily activities of life. Try to find some balance between aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. An example of an aerobic workout is 30 to 90 minutes of an activity of choice that raises the heart rate anywhere from 120 to 150 bpm. Anaerobic conditioning usually consists of intervals at very high intensity for seconds to a couple of minutes. The intensity is much higher, but the workout will be much shorter. Once again, the key is intensity, it must be high. Look into Joel Jamison’s Ultimate MMA conditioning for more insight into cardio conditioning.
  • Power Training. Type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers undergo the most loss as we age. Unless medical conditions or injuries don’t allow for it, I try to incorporate some form of power training for all people. These may be medicine ball throws, jumps, or any exercise that is done quickly and explosively. There is greater risk to performing an exercise at a faster speed, but proper exercise selection and form can help limit those risks. Power training will help improve balance.
  • Natural Movement or Movnat Training. I know I beat this one to death in my posts, but being able to run, jump, climb, crawl, lift, throw, catch, roll, fall, carry, and balance, will go a long way in helping you explore new planets, or just stay independent into old age. Training in a martial art can also fit in this category because it has many benefits, including improving coordination, flexibility, movement, conditioning, and taking a fall. Aikido is a fairly gentle martial art that can be done into old age, and teaches a person to maintain balance and fall properly. It’s best to start training before you are afraid of falling. Tai Chi is another good martial art for improving body awareness, movement, and balance.

The previously mentioned tips can help a person live a long and active life, or prepare them to explore the galaxy. We can learn a lot from the counter measures that NASA is taking to combat bone and muscle loss. We have a choice. We can either wither away and lose function as we age, or we can get strong and well conditioned now, at any age, and fully enjoy our life to the very end.

“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light” -Michael Caine in Interstellar, quoted from Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

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