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Faster or farther? NASA trains astronauts with treadmills

Spotter Brent Crowell monitors Test Subject Liz Goetchius as she works out on the Vertical Treadmill (sZLS) in the NASA Flight Analog Research Unit (FARU) at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Photo: NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States has taken a keen interest in treadmill running. Most of their astronauts do a lot of it, often up to 2.5 every day while on the space station, but the agency hoping to send a human to Mars in the coming years has been busy testing if running faster or farther is better for combating muscle atrophy on long hauls through space, research which could also be used to help prevent a similar problem in long-term hospital patients.

The problem of muscle atrophy in astronauts is a major one. While in space, no longer fighting the incessant pull of gravity, muscles can become weak very quickly if not deliberately exercised. To keep astronauts from becoming frail, NASA prescribes them an exercise to be done six days each week (many do more), but knowing the most effective approach is valuable. Time and resources are more valuable off-Earth.

The agency is looking to a study from December 2014 on helping bed-ridden patients maintain muscle mass to decide how best to exercise astronauts during potential interplanetary trips. A trip to Mars would take an estimated six to seven months of spaceflight, one way.

The study found that the more¬†effective way to combat muscle atrophy was high intensity interval training combined with weightlifting and a balanced diet. This isn’t a surprising result. Long distance runners aren’t known for their bulky physique, but your short speed workouts each week might not be completely different from what could be prescribed to those exploring space in the coming decades.