March 29


Long-term space travelers will need high-intensity exercise to protect heart health

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  • Sustained low-intensity exercise does not completely
    counteract the effects of weightlessness on the heart muscle, which will
    atrophy over time in a gravity-free environment.
  • Short bursts of repeated high-intensity
    activity during shorter space missions may be more successful in keeping
    the heart healthy.

Embargoed until 4 a.m. CT/5 a.m. ET Monday, March 29, 2021

DALLAS, March 29, 2021 — As NASA seeks to build a
lunar outpost, visit Mars and commercialize spaceflight, the long-term effects
of weightlessness on the human heart are of critical importance, according to
researchers. By analyzing data from astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space and comparing
it to information from extreme long-distance swimming, which simulates
weightlessness, of Benoît Lecomte, researchers found that low-intensity exercise
was not enough to counteract the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the
heart, according to new research published today in the
American Heart Association’s flagship journal Circulation.

Each time a person sits or stands, gravity draws blood
into the legs. The work the heart does to keep blood flowing as it counters
Earth’s gravity helps it maintain its size and function. Removing gravitational
effects causes the heart to shrink.

Researchers examined data from retired astronaut Scott
Kelly’s stint aboard the International Space Station from 2015 to 2016 and
elite endurance swimmer Benoît Lecomte’s swim across the Pacific Ocean in 2018.

In this new study, researchers evaluated the
effects of long-term weightlessness on the structure of the heart and to help
understand whether extensive periods of low-intensity exercise can prevent the
effects of weightlessness.

“The heart is remarkably plastic and especially
responsive to gravity or its absence. Both the impact of gravity as well as the
adaptive response to exercise play a role, and we were surprised that even
extremely long periods of low-intensity exercise did not keep the heart muscle
from shrinking,” said Benjamin D. Levine, M.D., the study’s senior author and a
professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and director
of Texas Health Presbyterian’s Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine,
both in Dallas.

The research team examined the health data of Kelly’s year in space aboard the International Space
Station and Lecomte’s swim across the Pacific Ocean
to investigate the
impact of long-term weightlessness on the heart. Water immersion is an
excellent model for weightlessness since water offsets gravity’s effects,
especially in a prone swimmer, a specific swimming technique used by
long-distance endurance swimmers.

Kelly exercised six days a week, one to two hours
per day during his 340 days in space, March 27, 2015 to March 1, 2016, using a
stationary bike, a treadmill and resistance activities. Researchers hoped Lecomte’s
159-day swim from June 5 to Nov. 11, 2018 of 1,753 miles from Choshi, Japan,
during which he averaged nearly six hours a day swimming, would keep his heart
from shrinking and weakening. Doctors performed various tests to measure the
health and effectiveness of both Kelly’s and Lecomte’s hearts before, during
and after each man embarked on his respective expeditions.

The analysis found:

  • Both Kelly
    and Lecomte lost mass from their left ventricles over the course of the
    experiences (Kelly 0.74 grams/week; Lecomte 0.72 grams/week).
  • Both men
    suffered an initial drop in the diastolic diameter of their heart’s left
    ventricle (Kelly’s dropped from 5.3 to 4.6 cm; Lecomte’s reduced from 5 to 4.7
  • Even the
    most sustained periods of low-intensity exercise were
    not enough to counteract the effects of prolonged weightlessness
  • Left
    ventricle ejection fraction (LVEF) and markers of diastolic function did not
    consistently change in either individual throughout their campaign.

This case study examined two extraordinary feats by
two unique individuals. While it is important to understand how the body
responds to extreme circumstances, more study is required to understand how
these results can be applied to the general population. Analysis of Lecomte’s
cardiac MRIs from before and after his swim are forthcoming and will also be
helpful for the researchers to further understand whether long-term effects of
weightlessness can be reversed. Kelly did not receive cardiac MRIs, and currently,
there are no further follow up plans with him.

Co-authors are James P. MacNamara, M.D., M.S.C.S.;
Katrin A. Dias, Ph.D.; Satyam Sarma, M.D.; Stuart M.C. Lee, Ph.D., David
Martin, M.S., R.D.C.S.; Maks Romeijn, M.D.; and Vlad G. Zaha, M.D., Ph.D.

Additional Resources:

Statements and conclusions of studies published in the American Heart Association’s scientific journals are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the Association’s policy or position. The Association makes no representation or guarantee as to their accuracy or reliability. The Association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific Association programs and events. The Association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and biotech companies, device manufacturers and health insurance providers are available here, and the Association’s overall financial information is available here.

About the American Heart Association

The American Heart Association is a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. We are dedicated to ensuring equitable health in all communities. Through collaboration with numerous organizations, and powered by millions of volunteers, we fund innovative research, advocate for the public’s health and share lifesaving resources. The Dallas-based organization has been a leading source of health information for nearly a century. Connect with us on , Facebook , Twitter or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.


For Media Inquiries and AHA/ASA Expert Perspective: 214-706-1173

William Westmoreland: 214-706-1232,

For Public Inquiries: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (242-8721) and

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