“Regular exercise prepared me well for the demands of astronaut life, and it will prepare explorers of the future for their challenges,” said Robert Thirsk, former astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency and director of the board for LIFT Philanthropy Partners.
Thirsk believes that as Canada expands its new frontiers of exploration in science, medicine, engineering and the arts, young explorers will need to be equipped with not only mental aptitude, but also the physical skills to work in demanding environments and make much needed discoveries. Healthy and active living is central to the success of other disciplines.
In an interview with Ashoka Changemakers, Thirsk talks about the physical demands of spaceflight and why everyone—not just astronauts—should strive for active living to get the most out of life.
While many of us fantasize about outer-space expeditions, only a select number of individuals ever get to go. Sci-fi movies aside, what is the space environment really like?
Robert Thirsk: In 1996 I flew a 17-day science mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia. And in 2009 I flew with five international crewmates on a half-year expedition aboard the International Space Station.
Although it is an incredible place to perform unique research, space is not an easy place to live. It is alien to humans. The spaceflight environment is characterized by high speeds and altitudes, extremes of temperature, vacuum, ionizing radiation, and spacecraft-shattering orbital debris. It seems that everything about space is trying to kill us!
How have human beings overcome the hostility of space?
Robert Thirsk: While the design of spacecraft and spacesuits protect astronauts against most of the harmful aspects of spaceflight, it is the weightless aspect of spaceflight that, for the most part, causes medical problems for astronauts. For example, weightlessness causes our bones to lose calcium, our muscles to atrophy and lose strength, and our hearts to become weaker. The longer we stay in space, the greater the effects.
Space researchers have studied these effects and successfully developed a variety of countermeasures (i.e. preventive measures and treatments). Physical exercise is our most important countermeasure, because the physiological effects of spaceflight mimic what happens to our bodies on Earth when they are inactive. Without daily loading through intense exercise, our bodies decondition – even on Earth. Thus, sitting for hours a day in an office chair or loafing on a sofa causes similar changes to hearts, muscle and bone. Consequently, astronauts exercise for at least two hours each day.
How is exercise adapted to fit the needs of humans in space?
Robert Thirsk: Half of our exercise time is devoted to aerobic fitness and the other half to muscle toning. The exercise equipment aboard the International Space Station includes a stationary bicycle (though a bike seat is not needed in weightlessness!) and a treadmill (named after the American comedian Stephen Colbert). My favourite equipment item is the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) that provides our muscles with a workout that is similar to a barbell/dumbbell workout on Earth.
Personal trainers on the ground monitor our progress and continually modify our exercise protocols. The goals of the program are to minimize the de-conditioning of our bodies, to ensure that we are fit to perform strenuous on-orbit tasks such as spacewalks, and to physically prepare us for return to Earth’s gravitational field at the end of our mission.
What has being an astronaut taught you about the importance of healthy living here on earth? Meaning, if we’re not all astronauts, why should we care about exercise?
Robert Thirsk: Throughout my career I followed an exercise program in order to maintain my safety and productivity while in space. Back on Earth, I now spend two hours at the gym several times each week. My exercise goal is to stay healthy and maintain an active lifestyle.
A personal exercise program allows me to live my life to the fullest. Healthy living provides me with an advantage in my work, sports and social life. I am mentally sharper and at my physical best when fit and healthy.
Today, chronic diseases that are associated with inactivity (diabetes, stroke and heart disease) are affecting millions of people and straining the resources of our healthcare system. They are an important public health issue in Canada.
I firmly believe that engaging Canadians in exercise programs will enhance our enjoyment of life and will achieve tangible success. And it will help prevent chronic diseases. Now that will be a nice return on investment!