In a historic mission, SpaceX has safely sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) and safely returned them home again. This is the first time since 2011 that the US has sent astronauts into space on an American rocket.  We are all aware of the perils of space travel, sending men and women to space and returning them safely is no easy feat. However, keeping them healthy and fit during an extended space mission can also be tricky. As many of us know, just staying fit and healthy here on earth, especially as we advance in age, is a challenge. 

In the absence of gravity, astronauts lose bone and muscle mass at an accelerated rate. It is likely that the two Space Dads, Bob and Doug, lost 3% of their bone density and 20% or more of their muscle mass during their 3 months on the ISS.  Here on earth, a similar thing happens as we age, but at a much slower pace.  After age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3%-5% of muscle per decade.  That can add up to 20% loss in muscle mass by the time you are 70 years old. This same rate of loss can occur in our bones as well, leaving them weak and fragile and susceptible to fractures.

Maintaining and optimizing muscle mass in our astronauts and ourselves as we age impacts health far beyond mobility. Muscle is metabolically active tissue, meaning that it produces proteins and chemicals that interact and influence other cells in our body. Besides moving our limbs, lean muscle mass is critical for maintaining proper weight, controlling blood sugars, managing cholesterol and lipid levels, regulating inflammation, helping to recover from illness, and preventing so many of our age-related diseases. In fact, low muscle mass is associated with an increase in all causes of mortality. Simply put, the more muscle you have, the less risk you will have from dying of chronic disease, the healthier you will be and, potentially, the longer you will live.

Fortunately for Bob and Doug and the rest of us, there is a thing called exercise!

Exercise, particularly restive exercise, is critical to maintaining muscle and bone mass both in space and here on earth. Bob and Doug spent 2 ½ hours a day, 6 days a week, exercising while on the ISS. To help mitigate the effects of gravity on muscle, they use a specialized machine called an Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED).  The ARED has the capability to exercise all of the major muscle groups, focusing on squats, deadlifts, and bench presses to help the astronauts maintain their strength. They also have a modified treadmill which generates a force on the legs to get the impact loading that is so important for bone health. Since the addition of this equipment to the space station, our astronauts are coming back healthier than ever!

Upon return, the conditioning doesn’t stop. Bob and Doug will spend two hours every day for roughly the next 45 days with strength and conditioning specialists. Their program consists of stretching, aerobic exercise, strength training, and agility drills to get them back to the physical condition they had pre-flight.

You can see that NASA takes exercise very seriously and to optimize our health we should too.  Although you don’t need to carve out 2 hours a day to exercise, you do need to spend a couple of hours a week prioritizing exercises that will boost your muscle mass.  Walking, biking, and other “cardio” exercises are important, but to build and maintain muscle mass, you need to directly challenge your muscles. Resistive training, whether through weight lifting, bodyweight exercises, or use of resistance bands, is a critical component of any exercise program.

Most of us begrudgingly do our daily exercise with the focus of losing fat. But the truth is that we should actually be exercising to optimize muscle. How much muscle you have is much more important when it comes to enhancing health, vitality, and longevity.

To learn more about Click Here to Learn about 5 Reasons Why Muscle Mass Benefits Health Aging

Susan Brady
is a Physical Therapist,
Nutrition Consultant and
Doctor of Integrative Medicine.
She has been treating women with osteoporosis for over 30 years and is dedicated to helping people achieve
lasting good health and vitality.

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