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In order to stay in space for so long, Peggy Whitson exercised like crazy

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When a Soyuz capsule touched down on Earth’s surface two weeks ago in central Kazakhstan, it marked the first time in 288 days that astronaut Peggy Whitson had set foot on our planet. The 57-year-old astronaut not only holds the record for the longest time in orbit in a single flight for a woman and the longest cumulative spacewalking time, but also the longest total time spent in space. Over the course of her impressive career, Whitson has been in space for 665 days, which is no easy feat for the human body. So how did Whitson manage it? The same way we manage our bodies here on Earth — with lots of exercise.

The International Space Station may be a futuristic structure, but even in a space-centered future, we’ll need to hit the gym every once in awhile. So to keep astronauts healthy, the ISS ensures that they have the equipment they need to work out, and work out quite a bit, too. As it stands, astronauts like Whitson exercise for two and a half hours every day. It’s required by NASA, and is intended to offset the deleterious effects of being so far away from home for such a long time. Indeed, the average space visitor loses somewhere in the range of 11 to 17 percent of their strength, 10 percent of their endurance, and up to seven percent of their bone density.

But a good fitness regimen can help with this. Crew members can use three key pieces of equipment — a Cycle Ergometer, otherwise known as a stationary bike; a treadmill whose restraint system makes astronauts feel like they’re actually running and not just flailing about in a zero-gravity environment; and an Advanced Resistance Exercise Device, or the ARED, which is a weight-lifting device that makes use of flywheels and vacuum cylinders to mimic resistance.

As Dr. Richard Scheuring, a NASA flight surgeon, told Engadget, it’s because of these devices that “our crews are coming back in much better shape” and recovering more quickly from the stresses of being away. “Generally, if our astronauts stick to our post-flight reconditioning program and they’ve worked hard in space, within 30 days of coming back from a six-month mission, we can have them at their baseline numbers for strength, flexibility, and stamina.”

So if astronauts can find time to work out in space, maybe we should be doing all we can to stay fit on Earth, too.

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