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Monday, August 27, 2012

Good news for astronauts’ bones

Bone loss is a huge problem for people working in zero or very low gravity. The more time a person spends in such an environment, the worse the problem can get. Scientists have tried to mitigate this loss by adding exercise equipment to space stations, but it hasn’t been particularly successful. In 2008, the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) was added to the International Space Station (ISS). Scott Smith from NASA and his colleagues were interested in whether this new device, in conjunction with controlled nutrition, could decrease or eliminate bone loss in astronauts.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 19/20 flight engineer, exercises using the advanced Resistive Exercise Device (aRED) in the Unity node of the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA.

Thirteen astronauts who spent between 48 and 215 days aboard the ISS between 2006 and 2009 were the subjects of the experiments. They were each given specific exercise protocols to follow and asked to record what they ate. At various times before, during and after their missions, they were subjected to bone density and blood tests.

The ARED has distinct advantages over previous space exercise machines in that it allows for more consistent load-bearing and a wider range of movements. But would that make enough of a difference? Well, the results are in: astronauts using the ARED can avoid bone loss, as long as they also consume enough calories and get enough vitamin D.

This news is especially encouraging for anyone who dreams of participating in a mission to MARS. Astronauts on the ISS may be able to return to Earth if their health becomes compromised, but MARS explorers will have no such option.

Commander Scott Kelly demonstrates the ARED below: