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Building a Leaner, Meaner ARED

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Anyone over 40 can attest to the undesirable effect gravity has on the human body. Becky Lawrence, a second-year physical therapy student from Genoa, Ill., will tell you that in space, the absence of gravity has its disadvantages, as well.

Last summer Becky was among 12 student interns at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who worked on the Advanced Resistance Exercise Device. When the ARED is “launched” in fall 2009, it could be one of the most important pieces of equipment ever sent into space.

NASA established the institute in 1997 to study ways to ameliorate the effects of prolonged spaceflight, both in space and post-flight, since astronauts who are in a zero-gravity environment for weeks or months at a time can suffer severe muscle atrophy and bone-density loss. According to Becky, resistant exercise is imperative for muscles and bones to retain their mass, strength and endurance. Gravity is a key component in providing that resistance, so the ARED was developed to provide resistance without gravity.

“It’s essentially like a rowing machine, but instead exercises the legs, trunk and back—the parts of the body that research has shown suffer the worst effects of prolonged zero-gravity,” Becky says.

Becky worked on a portion of the NSBRI’s ARED study during her internship. She and her colleagues conducted numerous studies on NASA employees who volunteered as subjects. She collected data on the subjects’ bone density, muscle strength and endurance, and on the blood and urine markers that indicate hormone levels.

“Actually doing the research really gives a student a better appreciation for the amount of time and effort required to perform quality research studies,” Becky says about the value of the internship. “It also gave me a very practical way to apply what we learn in the PT program about anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics and exercise principles. I think you can learn more when you can apply knowledge in a different way.”

With the assistance of an NSBRI athletic trainer, Becky also rewrote the 10-year-old post-flight rehabilitation regimen manual for astronauts. Here, too, she used her knowledge and background in physical therapy, particularly in how to rebuild the strength and muscle of bedridden patients, whose symptoms are similar to those of astronauts after prolonged spaceflight.

“I used my PT background to write the program to rehabilitate the astronauts using certain guidelines from my clinical and theory background,” she says. The 40-page rehab manual is currently in the final phase of approval, but it’s already being used by the astronauts.

As for Becky, interning for NASA and NSBRI fulfilled an aspiration that had once seemed as remote as the moon.

“I wanted to be an astronaut since the fourth grade. I even collected the astronaut cards, the ones with their pictures on it that you could trade with your friends,” she laughs. “So when I found out about this NASA connection with physical therapy, I knew I had to do it.”

—R. Youngblood