What Will Happen to Astronauts’ Muscles on Mars?

What Will Happen to Astronauts’ Muscles on Mars?

The years of only dreaming of other planets and watching sci-fi movies is over. The time has come to go to Mars—well, almost.

In late March, President Trump asked NASA to get people to Mars by 2033. NASA responded with detailed plans for conducting research and putting people on the Red Planet, but they’re facing major pressure from Boeing and SpaceX. All three are competing to get people on Mars first. SpaceX has announced that it intends on sending people to Mars by 2024, with plans to build a colony on the planet in the next century. No matter who wins the prize, we may humans visiting or living on Mars by 2050 at the latest.

As we all pack our bags and dream about our new lives on Mars, we have to ask the question: what does a trip to space do to our bodies? And how can we prepare our bodies to get ready for the big move?

The “muscles on Mars” study and astronaut fitness 

There are two big factors that negatively influence astronauts’ bodies while they are up in space. The “microgravity” in space doesn’t give the muscles a lot of work. Muscles, and the cells that makeup muscles, need oxygen to function, and there isn’t a lot of oxygen up in space. Without oxygen or gravity, the body is put through a high level of stress to the point where their muscles may be atrophied or impaired. Bone-density loss used to be a common problem for astronauts, as well.

Over time, fitness experts and astronauts have developed exercise routines to keep astronauts from losing muscles or bone density while in space. Astronauts in space are required to spend an hour a day on an Advanced Resistance Exercise Device (ARED), a clamshell-like weight machine that works muscles throughout the body. Weighted treadmills are also available for astronauts to use while they are on the spacecraft. Stationary bikes are attached to the walls of the spacecraft, and special exercise routines help astronauts reduce muscle atrophy, bone density loss and overall muscle weakness.

Current space crafts give astronauts a lot of space to use the ARED and other equipment. However, missions to Mars will require smaller spacecraft that may not give astronauts (or potential Mars colonizers) a lot of room to exercise. NASA is conducting vigorous fitness tests on robots to see what needs to be done before we start sending people to Mars.

How to train like an astronaut 

A daily hour of exercise is nothing compared to what astronauts need to go through before they go to space. Astronauts train hard to get fit for space; they use the ARED, treadmills and a stationary bike to build lower body strength and keep their cardiovascular system strong.

One of the biggest areas of focus for astronauts is the lower body. Bone density is most common in the hips and lower back. Squats and deadlifts are a big part of an astronaut’s exercise routine, both at the space station and in space.

Shane Kimbrough has been training to go into space for over two years at the International Space Station for an upcoming mission. His routine includes lifting with the ARED for more than 45 minutes a day, plus using the bike or treadmill for another 45 minutes or more. He completes this workout six days per week. Each exercise is carefully chosen by NASA’s top fitness experts. Kimbrough’s routine is switched and adjusted every few days to keep him interested, and it’s reconfigured every two weeks to ensure that the future astronaut is doing the most to reduce his risk of bone loss.

Want to train with an actual astronaut? Mike Hopkins has a fitness program, “Train Like an Astronaut,” that encourages people to work out with a routine similar to the one Hopkins uses before he goes into orbit. Hopkins trains at CrossFit, plus does other sports and activities that keep him active and fit—so his astronaut workout might not be as other-worldly as you’d think.

If you want to be one of the first humans to colonize Mars, you’ll have to get in line—and hit the gym. Fitness is a crucial part of preparation for space missions. While you’re waiting for the call to pack up your bags and move to the Red Planet, use this time to get in shape and reduce your risk of atrophy and bone loss.

SpaceX is predicting that people will get to Mars in just six years, but the time for astronauts to get in shape for space is now. And if you’re hoping to go along for the ride to Mars, it might be time to focus on something you likely wouldn’t think of working out otherwise—your bone density.