This article is featured in the UNO Magazine's Summer 2014 edition and was written by Rick Davis
What is the most effective and efficient way to exercise in outer space? That’s a question UNO graduate Melissa Scott-Pandorf, Ph.D., has been wrestling with since becoming an exercise scientist for NASA contractor Wyle five years ago.
“We are trying to optimize to the most efficient exercise program you could possibly develop,” Scott-Pandorf says from her home in Kearney, Neb., where she now telecommutes with the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
So how does one exercise in zero gravity? And why is it important for crew members aboard the International Space Station to continue an exercise routine?
Let’s take the second question first.
“Basically, our crew tends to lose bone, especially in the legs and hip areas,” Scott-Pandorf says. “When you walk on earth, you have gravity acting on all of your body all of the time. When you go up there, you don’t have those forces anymore.”
Stress on your bone and muscle helps keep them healthy on earth. When we exercise, muscle and bone break down and remodel themselves stronger. When we don’t use them, they get weaker.
In zero gravity — where one can push around a 500-pound barbell with ease — the challenge becomes putting stress, or force, on muscle and bone. Crewmembers tend tend to put more stress on their upper body as they pull themselves around the space station.
“It’s a lot like what you would see in the elderly as you progress through time,” Scott-Pandorf says. “Our crew does not have osteoporosis necessarily, but you can find some with osteopenic-type tendencies. So we try to use exercise to mitigate those losses.
“The goal is really to find those exercises that are most efficient and efficacious at keeping muscle and bone throughout space flight.”
Which brings us back to the first question about exercising in zero gravity.
NASA has developed exercise equipment with “loading devices” that place force on the body. Take, for instance, the T-2, a modified Woodway treadmill with bungee cords anchored at the base on each side. The bungee cords clip to a harness that goes over a crew member’s shoulders and fastens at the waist — pulling them onto the treadmill. There’s also a stationary bike, called CEVIS (Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System), and another piece of equipment called ARED (Advanced Resistive Exercise Device), which provides more anaerobic training through the use of vacuum cylinders.
Interestingly, each piece of equipment features a “vibration isolation system” — that allows the equipment to sort of free-float and keeps any applied force from being transferred to the space station.
“If the treadmill were locked into the space station and a crew member began running on it, data would show the whole space station moving,” Scott-Pandorf says. “It’s really that easy to jolt around the entire space station.”
Crewmembers can have up to two exercise sessions per day. They are encouraged to do four days a week on the treadmill, two days on the CEVIS and four to six days of ARED.
What we learn in space can help us on terra firma.
“I think some of this research can cross over into rehabilitation,” Scott-Pandorf says. “It’s interesting to us to know the exact forces that are happening within the hip, within the spine, within the calcaneus (heel) bone, and knowing that information can be helpful to someone who is in rehabilitation sciences and is trying to mitigate things like osteoporosis.”
Over the past three years, Scott-Pandorf also has been working with a neuroscience lab at Johnson Space Center, trying to develop interventions to help crewmembers adapt more quickly once they return to Earth.
“When they get back to earth, the whole body, especially the sensory system, has a hard time making sense of the return to full gravity,” she says. “They are actually very unsteady.”
Scott-Pandorf is working with the biomechanics facility at UNO, studying whether a small vibrating chip inserted into the soles of crew members’ shoes could heighten their sensory systems and allow their bodies to adjust more quickly once they are back on earth.
Nick Stergiou, Ph.D., professor and director of UNO’s Biomechanics Research Building — whose graduates are working everywhere from academia to government agencies to medical centers — says he is proud of what his former student has accomplished.
“We have come full circle, from faculty-student to research collaborators,” Stergiou says. “She was a fantastic student, with a strong work ethic. I am very proud of what she has done.”
Scott-Pandorf, who earned undergraduate (2003) and master’s (2006) degrees in exercise science from UNO, considers her UNO education and internship with Dr. Stergiou “great opportunities.”
“I learned so much there,” she says.