Normal muscle fibers in the top picture, and muscle fibers from an astronaut who spent time in space in the second picture  (Source: NASA)
NASA and university researchers look for new ways to keep astronauts healthy in space

A study recently published in The Journal of Applied Physiology indicates astronauts launched into orbit must alter their physical workout regime so they can reduce the amount of muscle loss while in space.

Astronauts normally stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for six-month durations, and NASA continues to look for ways astronauts can maintain their cardiovascular system, along with bone and skeletal muscles.

Despite exercise while in space, astronauts still lost 15 percent of their muscle mass and around 20 to 30 percent of muscle performance loss after long durations in space, according to research done by NASA, HPL, and the Marquette University bioscience department.

"By clinical standards, this is a massive loss," Ball State University Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) director Scott Trappe recently said.  "This approaches what we see in aging populations in comparisons of a 20-year-old versus an 80-year-old. This poses risks to the crewmembers and could have a dramatic impact on locomotion and overall health, which would impact a variety of crewmembers' activities including future goals of planetary exploration."

Researchers gathered information about astronauts' muscle characteristics by using MRIs and muscle biopsies both before and after long duration stays in space.  Previous research indicates astronauts also have issues with the density and strength of their bones after returning to Earth from the ISS.

Even though working in zero gravity for such long durations is detrimental to the human body, researchers are coming up with methods to help astronauts.

"From our bed rest studies, we found that when high-intensity resistance and aerobic exercise are balanced correctly, this is an effective prescription that is quite therapeutic in protecting skeletal muscles in a simulated microgravity environment. The next step is to apply what we have learned from the ISS experience and implement the next generation of exercise prescription programs into the space environment. Intensity wins, hands down."

Each astronaut stationed to the ISS now can make use of the Advanced Resistance Exercise Device (ARED), with doctors creating custom workout plans depending on the astronaut.

Since these are serious medical issues, expect more research to be done involving long-term space deployments, and how NASA and other space agencies can better prepare astronauts.  Several prominent space programs have plans to send astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars, which will again put a strong focus on astronaut health while in space.

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