What Would Exercise in Space Look Like?

Yes, exercise in space has been something that NASA and other agencies that utilize the International Space Station have been trying to optimize with varying degrees of success. Whilst the ways devised are decent and may be adequate for the purpose of delaying the loss of muscle mass and bone density, there are still more methods to explore. Bear in mind that these exercises were theorized with the premise that we do not find a way to artificially simulate gravity onboard a spaceship. It is also important to note that veins draw blood back to the heart via muscular contraction done through voluntary movement. Without gravity to naturally spur on the voluntary contraction of muscles, exercise also becomes a vital element to a working circulatory system whilst in the microgravity environment of space.

NASA’s Exercise Regime

Here is a list of the creative solutions that the team at NASA had come up with (a total of 3 different devices), used for a total of 2 and a half hours is spent per day:

Cable assisted treadmill: This is a standard treadmill that has cables attached to a vest that act by pulling downwards on the wearer to simulate the feeling of gravity attempting to pull you towards the ground. It is not known to be the most effective piece of equipment but it sure beats not running at all. It should be noted that this could be improved upon by adding features mentioned in the later section of this chapter.

Stationary bike: An old favorite amongst gym-goers on Earth, except just with an additional strap to keep your glutes glued to the saddle. This helps provide another form of cardio for crew members aboard the International Space Station who are not a big fan of running or have prior knee injuries. This is one of the exercises that doesn’t differ drastically from the version that we have on earth, making it one of the pieces of equipment that’ll remind the crew of home. It should be noted that pairing this equipment with virtual reality gaming displays to have competitions between the crew members could greatly improve morale and adherence to an exercise regime (Zwift bikes are already a good example of this).

Advanced Resistive Exercise Device: This is the space equivalent of lifting weights, yet it may look foreign to us Earth dwellers (Looking more like a piece of engineering equipment). It uses a system of vacuum cylinders and pistons to simulate the resistance caused by free weights with the aid of an attached barbell for a host of possible exercises. Luckily for us, though it does not require a degree in engineering in order to operate, it is straightforward and attempts to mimic many of the common exercises that we do here on Earth. The list of possible exercises includes the deadlift, bench press, squat, bicep curls, upright rows, triceps extension, hip abduction, hip adduction, and heel raise. With such an impressive list, one would easily be able to devise a full-body routine with this piece of equipment in the microgravity of space. This piece of equipment will surely become a favorite with those who view cardio as a cardinal sin and pray to the god of gains every night before bed (Looking at you, gym bros).

New Experimental Ideas:

Resistance bands: By having fixed anchor points for the feet when training the upper body or for the shoulders (Backpack style) when training the lower body, resistance bands can offer a way to produce resistance (via tension in the band) without needing gravity (as normal weights do). You could devise ways to train the entire body using them. The only reason I think this hasn’t been devised yet is that it is difficult to find appropriate anchor point placement (To ensure the user does not float away during the exercise).
Electromyostimulation: There is a new form of training that involves using suits with electrodes that electrically stimulate muscles involuntarily which helps train muscles in a more effective yet less effortful manner. In space however, this could prove invaluable due to its ability to create the extreme tension needed to stimulate muscle growth. This can be added with the squeezing of stress balls (with the hands) or the training with resistance bands to further enhance its effectiveness. The only issue with this method of training is the requirement of each electrode having to be soaked in water to be conductive, one cannot be certain how difficult this application would be in a microgravity environment. If its application proves practical, then it could even be utilized at a low intensity whilst the crew is asleep to simulate the muscle work that happens in a regular bed on earth (e.g., the spinal muscles keeping the spine straight upon a bed in supine).
Compression sleeves: These sleeves have been used in the bodybuilding community for a while now and the idea is to increase the blood flow towards your heart which in turn helps to improve circulation throughout the entire body thereby also improving oxygen delivery to the tissues. The mechanism of action is that they increase the blood pressure of the individual wearing them temporarily by constricting the lumen of their distal peripheral blood vessels. Training with these could greatly counteract the effect of the minimal gravity aboard the spaceship and on mars. They can be used for both the upper body (forearms) and lower body (lower legs/calves).
Forced appositional bone growth: This method is as brutal as it sounds, the method involves taking a dense object and placing compression forces on the bone of choice by smashing it fast and repetitively to stimulate bone growth in the area. This is a concept that is derived from Wolff’s Law, which states: bones will adapt to the degree of mechanical loading placed upon them. This means that bones act very much like muscles where they need to have tension placed on them to stimulate hypertrophy. Your muscles already put stress on your bones via their pull, however, an intentional adding of a different external force could prove even more effective. This knowledge has already been known by Martial Artists for decades, they have been conditioning their jaws, ulna’s, knuckles, fingers, and shins for a while now through this exact technique. It is well documented that this practice does indeed increase the bone’s thickness (Diameter) and helps increase bone mineral density quite substantially. This is a bit of an intense technique to try on the crew going to Mars but any additional bone stimulation during the flight in space and on the surface could give them that extra edge that allows them to maintain their bone density. Therefore, it does not need to consist of a hardcore painful regime that the Martial Artists use but rather one of light stimulation that could tilt the bone remodeling process in their favor (Hypertrophy instead of atrophy).
Piezoelectric stimulation: This is the equivalent of EMS for the bones: An electrical current is used to polarize sections of bones to attract the respective bone cells to build bone (Known as osteoblasts). This technique started being implemented in Physical Therapy when it was discovered that bones get signals to build or break down via electrical signals. They now use this to stimulate the accrual of osteoblasts that build up bone to improve its strength, size, and density. Adding this to the training routine can be highly beneficial as it could be argued that bone density is slightly more important than muscle strength for functionality, although the two are of course interrelated (Strong muscles mean nothing with fractured bones on either end of its attachment).


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