Astronaut "moves" to help prevent falls among older adults confined to bed rest

February 24, 2021

Exercises used by astronauts in space may help prevent falls in older adults recovering in hospital, according to Simon Fraser University professor Andrew Blaber. His latest research will apply these space-based techniques to lower the chances of falls and help improve long-term hospital recovery. 

Blaber says older adults confined to bed rest in hospital experience similar problems as astronauts who have been in space for six months, such as bone and muscle loss, difficulties with balance while walking and lightheadedness after standing. These effects on the body can make individuals more prone to fainting and falling when they are just starting to get back on their feet. 

“We know if an older person falls and breaks their hip the mortality rate is quite high afterwards,” says Blaber, a professor of biomedical physiology and kinesiology. “We want to make sure that doesn’t happen when people are discharged from the hospital.”

“We also have a lot of people in hospital now because of COVID-19. Being immobilized in hospital over an extended period of time has serious consequences and anything we can do to help people recover and lead a healthy life after that is extremely important.”

Blaber’s previous study found that 60 days of bed-rest affected the ability of middle-aged participants’ legs to pump blood back to the heart, putting them at greater risk of fainting. His latest study tests the effectiveness of exercises, such as in-bed strength and high intensity interval training (HIIT) to help participants maintain blood pressure, posture control and prevent fainting after 14 days of bed rest. 

Blaber’s study, which will also help to further how space agencies protect astronaut health during longer missions to the moon and Mars, is connected to The Health Impacts of Inactivity Study, hosted at the Centre for Innovative Medicine (CIM) of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC). 

Study participants will include 24 men and women between the ages of 55 and 65 who will spend a total of 26 days at CIM, including 14 days of bed rest, plus an adaptation and recovery period. 

Healthy volunteers will lie in bed with their heads slightly tilted down for 14 days, to reproduce the effects of weightlessness on the body. Half of the participants will engage in strength and aerobic exercises, including HIIT three times per day while remaining in bed and using adapted equipment. Their biological changes over time will be monitored as will the impact of exercise on their bodies in maintaining healthy functioning.  

Blaber’s research project is one of eight led by various researchers from universities across Canada. Researchers will use data collected from the bed rest study participants to help improve the recovery process for older adults who have been bedridden in hospital for long periods of time.

He notes that there is a psychological aspect of this as well. “Many people who have a fall and end up in hospital are afraid to get up and walk again. There’s a huge fear of falling and they become less active as a result and their health deteriorates. These exercises can give people confidence in their ability to walk again and maintain an active lifestyle.”

Blaber’s study is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in partnership with the Canadian Frailty Network and the Canadian Space Agency.