18. November 2020
Staying fit in space

Train­ing un­der ar­ti­fi­cial grav­i­ty

A test participant and the study team prepare for a series of tests on the short-arm centrifuge
A test par­tic­i­pant and the study team pre­pare for a se­ries of tests on the short-arm cen­trifuge
Image 1/3, Credit: © DLR. All rights reserved

A test participant and the study team prepare for a series of tests on the short-arm centrifuge

The study in­ves­ti­gates the ef­fects of tar­get­ed train­ing of the ab­dom­i­nal and back mus­cles on mus­cle ac­ti­va­tion, biome­chan­ics and sub­jec­tive per­cep­tions un­der in­creased grav­i­ty.
Timo Frett in the centrifuge control room
Timo Frett in the cen­trifuge con­trol room
Image 2/3, Credit: © DLR. All rights reserved

Timo Frett in the centrifuge control room

The DLR Cen­trifuge Team led by Timo Frett joined with the ESA Space Medicine Team to de­vel­op a train­ing con­cept that ac­counts for the phys­i­cal con­di­tions dur­ing cen­trifuge op­er­a­tions.
Test participant prior to centrifuge activities
Test par­tic­i­pant pri­or to cen­trifuge ac­tiv­i­ties
Image 3/3, Credit: © DLR. All rights reserved

Test participant prior to centrifuge activities

All study par­tic­i­pants un­der­went a thor­ough med­i­cal check-up pri­or to tak­ing part and were wired up for mon­i­tor­ing dur­ing cen­trifuge op­er­a­tions. Mea­sure­ments in­clud­ed mus­cle ac­tiv­i­ty in the ab­domen and back, as well as heart rate, sub­jec­tive per­cep­tion of stress and thick­ness of the in­ter­ver­te­bral discs.
  • The GravityGym pilot study aims to acquire initial insights into the feasibility of training routines under artificial gravity. These could, for example, be used in the same or a similar way in the future to maintain the fitness of space crews during a Mars mission.
  • Focus: Spaceflight, medicine

Astronauts are just like normal people; regular physical training and sufficient exercise contribute significantly to their health. Lack of exercise quickly leads to a loss of quality of life and performance. But the absence of gravity can accelerate these processes for astronauts. This is why space travellers need to exercise a lot to prevent the loss of bone mass and degradation of their muscles. Artificial gravity may help to improve this training considerably. What gravity workouts along these lines might actually look like is currently being investigated using the short-arm human centrifuge at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) in Cologne.

Negative effects of weightlessness

Weightlessness causes gradual bone loss and muscle atrophy in humans. Legs are particularly badly affected because, unlike the constant stress they are under on Earth, they are hardly ever used in space. In addition, the cardiovascular system and metabolism can change, and mental performance may also be impacted.

The combination of artificial gravity generated by a centrifuge and specific training methods could be used to develop new measures to mitigate the negative physiological effects of weightlessness. This would preserve human health during long-term space missions.

Cen­trifuge train­ing un­der in­creased grav­i­ty
The test par­tic­i­pant per­forms ex­er­cis­es to train the back and ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles based on a rou­tine that was spe­cial­ly adapt­ed for use with the cen­trifuge.

Training plan

The GravityGym I pilot study by the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine is a ground-breaking project to investigate how targeted training of the abdominal and back muscles affects muscle activation and biomechanics. The study will also obtain data on subjective impressions during centrifuge operation; that is, under increased gravity. The GravityGym study has now started with 12 athletic men and women after adapting the test conditions to the hygiene requirements of the ongoing pandemic.

Their task seems simple at first glance; participants are given elastic straps and sling trainers and instructed to perform particular exercises to strengthen the abdominal and back muscles while the centrifuge is rotating. But selecting suitable exercises was not easy. The DLR Centrifuge Team led by Timo Frett and the ESA Space Medicine Team consisting of Nora Petersen and David Green tested on themselves a training concept that accounts for the physical conditions during centrifuge operation. For instance, movements of the head and shoulders should be avoided to prevent nausea and dizziness, especially among inexperienced test participants. This resulted in a mixture of exercises borrowed from physiotherapy, weight training and Pilates. The exercises are now being tested for effectiveness.

All trial participants were first required to undergo a rigorous medical check-up and are wired up for monitoring during centrifuge operations. Monitoring measurements include muscle activity in the abdomen and back, as well as heart rate, subjective perception of stress and the thickness of the intervertebral discs.

The aim of this pilot study is to obtain initial insights into the feasibility of training under artificial gravity, which could be used in the same or a similar way in a space environment to keep space crews fit, for example during a mission to Mars.

The research team working on the GravityGym project plans to test many other training methods, such as mounting a rowing ergometer or a treadmill on the centrifuge.

  • Michel Winand
    Cor­po­rate Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Bonn, Köln, Jülilch, Rhein­bach and Sankt Au­gustin
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)

    Pub­lic Af­fairs and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-2144
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Cologne
  • Timo Frett
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    In­sti­tute of Aerospace Medicine
    Grav­i­ta­tion­al Bi­ol­o­gy
    Sportallee 54a
    22335 Hamburg

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