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HEALTH & HUMAN PERFORMANCE
Growing UM center tests limits of human endurance
After cycling for 20 minutes, Walter Hailes’ temperature rose nearly 1 degree. Hailes, who once guided on Alaska’s Mount McKinley, began to sweat profusely as he bent into the handlebars, breathing heavily, countering the 212 watts of resistance against him.
Only through one-third of an indoor low-intensity bike workout, Hailes felt like he was working harder than that. Despite the winter weather outside, he cycled in a 90-degree “hot box” that felt like a July afternoon in Montana.
“Once his temperature hits 39 degrees (Celsius), he’s going to get a lot more uncomfortable,” says Brent Ruby, the director of UM’s new Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism.
The center, awarded a federal grant in 2006, studies the limits of human performance in harsh occupational environments. The experiment Hailes tested was part of a graduate thesis studying how the body recovers from strenuous activity in heat and is representative of the center’s research methods, which mimic real-life settings.
Three rounds of funding from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, scheduled until 2009, will potentially give more than $4 million to the center. In April the facility will move to a 5,000-square-foot renovation under construction at the southeast corner of McGill Hall.
Ruby and his team seek to define how much the human body can endure and use those results to ensure safety and performance in tough work environments such as special military operations, wildland firefighting and ultra-endurance settings. Researchers will try to find solutions to fatigue, overheating and other risks. Their results may offer changes in training procedures or supplemental feeding regimens.
“If we know more about the human ceiling for heat stress, energy expenditure and everything in between,” Ruby says, “we can really have a better influence on serving the needs of the Air Force Special Operations Command, other military operations and the wildfire fighters.”
Ruby has studied wildfire fighters since he began working at UM in 1994 as an assistant health and human performance professor.
Wildland firefighters are a crucial research subject — especially after a decade of intense fire seasons. Ruby found they can shed up to eight liters of water over 24 hours and burn 4,500 to 6,500 calories — the equivalent of eating eight to 12 Big Macs per day.
Wildland firefighters risk overheating, overworking and mental lapses, Ruby says. He found that special military operations forces are subject to similar risks.
Because military maneuvers cannot be studied in the field, the center uses wildfire fighters, military personnel during training exercises and, in some studies, ultra-endurance athletes as research models.
“The potential to get overheated is huge; the potential to go into that situation underfed and to stay underfed for that period of time is commonplace,” Ruby says. “If you’re going to keep someone safe in an operationally hazardous or hostile world, you have to be able to figure out a way to study that.”
Col. Jim Wright, an AFSOC flight surgeon for 22 years, visited UM in 2003. He spoke with Ruby and others about his department’s research needs. About half of AFSOC recruits drop out of the two-year “training pipeline,” Ruby says, so the center is trying to find ways to keep men in training while also considering their unique needs in combat.
Special operations forces often immediately go into action carrying all of their gear. This can amount to carrying 120-pound loads in extreme environments. Staying alert and consuming adequate food and water can be a challenge while working in desert temperatures that can reach 120 degrees or climbing in regions with altitudes of 8,000 to 12,000 feet or more above sea level.
Research that applies to special forces operations means more than just success in combat. The men on duty, Wright says, are sons, brothers and fathers. “We have a moral duty to try to train and equip these men as well as possible so they can come back safely and do their jobs well,” he says.
UM collects data with paid volunteers at a lower cost than the military, and their research provides complete data that institutions such as AFSOC couldn’t collect on their own, Ruby says.
Ruby and his team have made multiple trips to Air Force bases in Texas and Florida to study men in training, perform lab work and present earlier findings made at UM.
Although Wright and AFSOC work with other military units and universities, he says the exchange with UM is their main effort. “You have some unique expertise there that does not exist across the country,” Wright says.
After receiving the grant in 2006, Ruby knew his department’s Health and Human Performance Lab, which hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, had to be updated to support the grant’s specifications. Ruby has directed that lab since 1994 and will pass that job to another faculty member when his staff moves into its new renovated center.
The 3,550-square-foot first floor will house a new biochemistry lab and a 10-by-10-foot climate-controlled environmental chamber that researchers can set to different levels of temperature and humidity. The center also has mobile capabilities with its partly solar-powered Airstream trailer.
Ruby’s research crew includes Hailes and John Cuddy -— both lab technicians — and Dusty Slivka, a muscle sample specialist. In August 2007, they broke in the center’s 25-foot mobile lab by studying a group of cyclists biking 2,000 miles through the Rocky Mountains to determine how sustained fatigue affects the human body.
The center strives to find uniquely extreme events to collect rare data. As an example, Ruby and his team soon will study racers in a 135-mile, one-day race across Death Valley.
In the thesis experiment mentioned earlier, a subject cycled on a computer-controlled exercise bike in 90-degree heat for two different hour-long trials, then rested for four consecutive hours in the heat after one trial and in a cooler laboratory after the next.
After the trial, the subject was given a liquid meal, and researchers studied how much muscle fuel they could replenish, Ruby says.
In human research, the center focuses on variables that Ruby calls “the big four” — saliva, urine, blood and muscle. Muscle samples, procured by inserting a 4-inch-long needle slightly smaller in diameter than a drinking straw into the quadriceps leg muscle, are the most difficult to collect. Ruby often has been a subject for research requiring those samples.
Ruby, who just turned 40, competed in the 2006 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. He couldn’t pass up the rare opportunity to provide data before and after the strenuous race. The average Ironman racer sweats the equivalent of eight, two-liter pop bottles and expends 9,500 calories of energy on race day. Ruby contends he is likely the only racer who has captured muscle samples before and after the event.
Recently, Ruby pilot tested the same experiment as Hailes. He lost three and a half pounds during the trial, and his temperature reached 104 degrees during an hour in the hot box — simply a sauna that includes a resistance bike, large fan, medical bench and other equipment.
When renovations are complete, the center will have more advanced equipment, allowing scientists to closely mimic the extreme conditions military personnel and fire crews are exposed to during extended operations.
Although Ruby and his staff may serve as subjects for physically demanding tests, it’s easy for them to stay interested in their work. “Where recreation ends and research begins there is a gray area,” Ruby says with a smile. “It’s hard to know if I’m at work or at play.”
— By Ashley Zuelke
A picture of a bike racer taken by UM researcher Brent Ruby in Las Vegas
|UM researcher Brent Ruby (right) and muscle sample specialist Dusty Slivka extract tissue from a leg.
|A subject on an exercise bike completes in-lab testing before a 2,000-mile cycling study.
|The UM center studies hard-working groups such as U.S. Air Force special forces. (U.S. Air Force photo)