Why do astronauts have to work out on the International Space Station?

Exercise Technique and Equipment on the ISS
Astronaut Steven A. Hawley, mission specialist, runs on a treadmill on the middeck of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The exercise helped to evaluate the Treadmill Vibration Isolation System (TVIS) for International Space Station (ISS).
Astronaut Steven A. Hawley, mission specialist, runs on a treadmill on the middeck of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The exercise helped to evaluate the Treadmill Vibration Isolation System (TVIS) for International Space Station (ISS).
Photo courtesy NASA

There are three basic equipment devices astronauts use during spaceflights.

The treadmill on the International Space Station, formally called the Treadmill Vibration Isolation System (TVIS), is just like any other one on Earth, except it isn't connected to the station at all. It simply hovers around like the astronauts. This has three advantages: The weight of the station itself is less, there's a reduction in vibrations and the treadmill moves with the astronaut. Crew members still have to wear a harness and attach themselves to the treadmill; otherwise, their feet will simply push the machine away from them if they attempted to do any running.

Astronauts also use the Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation System (CEVIS), which is essentially a mechanical bicycle. The CEVIS is actually bolted to the floor of the ISS, and astronauts strap their shoes into buckles and wear seat belts to hold themselves down. Finally, the Resistive Exercise Device (RED) is a weight-lifting device that simulates gravity. Both the CEVIS and RED help build muscle and prevent muscle atrophy, another condition astronauts and bedridden patients experience after long periods of inactivity.

Even with lots of time put aside for exercise, astronauts still suffer from small amounts of bone loss. This poses a problem if we ever want people to stay for prolonged periods of time on someplace like the moon, where there's much less gravity. Since astronauts only stay in space for a few weeks or months at a time, we don't know if bone loss eventually tapers off and stops, or if it keeps on happening.

Scientists are thinking of new ways to reverse bone loss. Vibrating plates that astronauts stand on for 10 to 20 minutes a day while working, for instance, may mimic the sensation of bearing weight and decrease the amount of bone loss during space flight. NASA researchers have also suggested rotating entire shuttles or stations to create a significant gravitational force or designing large centrifuges to overcome bone loss [source: Houston Chronicle].

Astronauts also pay close attention to their diets and take dietary calcium supplements and other medications such as biophosphonates and potassium citrate, but this doesn't necessarily solve anything -- the root of the problem is still the lack of gravity [source: Dartmouth News].

Studies on how astronauts live in space and attempt to counteract bone loss can also benefit life here on Earth. The European Space Agency (ESA), for instance, is carefully monitoring and researching astronaut activity on the ISS -- it's worked with the Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Scanco Medical to design a special scanner that creates high-quality, 3-D images of bone structures for studying and measuring bone growth [source: ESA]. Their findings could help both astronauts in space and patients suffering from osteoporosis on Earth. Even though the causes behind osteoporosis and astronaut bone loss are different -- the former happens through hormonal changes, the latter through suppression of weight -- the treatments may be similar.

For lots more information on living in space, see the next page.

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  • Carreau, Mark. "Centrifuges, other devices may keep astronauts fit." Houston Chronicle. April 19, 2007. http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/space/4728356.html
  • Greensfelder, Liese. "Why astronauts suffer bone loss." Medical News Today. Feb. 23, 2004. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/6098.php
  • Iwamoto, Jun, Tsuyoshi Takeda and Yoshihiro Sato. "Interventions to prevent bone loss in astronauts during space flight." The Keio Journal of Medicine. Vol. 54, Num. 2, 2005. 55-59. http://www.kjm.keio.ac.jp/past/54/2/55.pdf
  • Sochaczewski, Paul and Andrew Leopold. "What's the link between astronauts and osteoporosis?" International Osteoporosis Foundation. May 31, 2006. http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=19970
  • "Astronaut fitness/physical conditioning." National Aeronautics and Space Administration. http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/64247main_ffs_factsheets_fitness.pdf
  • "Dartmouth researchers to design computer network to monitor bone loss in astronauts." Dartmouth News. July 23, 2001. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/2001/july01/mobileagents.html
  • "Fighting osteoporosis with ESA innovations." European Space Agency. May 9, 2005. http://www.esa.int/esaHS/SEMEZU2IU7E_business_0.html

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