Harnessing the Potential of a Good Run Backpack technology gains traction with astronauts

After years of chaffing, bruising, and discomfort in some astronauts, running in space just got easier. Whether it's a two-mile jog or a half-marathon, many astronauts on the International Space Station find their stride and enjoy a relatively pain-free run thanks to the custom-fit, backpack-inspired Glenn Harness.

Because their bones are not under stress or heavy loads in space, astronauts on orbit can suffer a rapid loss of bone mineral density. Without exercise the average monthly loss in astronauts during a six-month stay on the space station is approximately equivalent to the average annual loss that is suffered by post-menopausal women on Earth.

In response, astronauts follow a bone-strengthening routine that includes treadmill running. While the space station has two treadmills, just having the machines available isn't enough. The microgravity environment of space means astronauts cannot simply step onto a treadmill and jog through a twenty-minute run.

"The only way you can run on a treadmill in space is to have a harness that pulls you back toward the treadmill surface," said Peter Cavanagh, University of Washington professor and former Director of the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Space Medicine that developed the new harness design. "What you want ideally is a harness that will apply a force exactly equal to your body weight."

To provide the mechanical stimulus for healthy bones, the runner needs an impact that represents their full body weight as it is on Earth. Depending on the astronaut, that could be 220 pounds, up to 110 pounds provided by the harness on each side of the body. Compared to the 80- to 90-pound backpack that is considered a heavy load on earth, full body loading is an "extraordinarily difficult loading situation," according to Gail Perusek, NASA's Glenn Research Center, Principal Investigator and Project Manager for the Glenn Harness flight studies.

"The torso is basically a cylinder. To get traction you need to apply a downward force. All you have to work with are the shoulders and the hips," said Perusek. "The original treadmill harness was mostly just Nomex fabric and webbing with minimal padding (Aramid felt). The harness was one-size-fits-all and cumbersome to adjust. It was also inadequate to transfer loads to the hips, where 70-80% of the load should be going."

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