If humans could be turned into guinea pigs and made to run on treadmills, Jayne Brahler would help design the cages.
As it is, the Washington State University graduate student puts athletes on stairclimbers and treadmills and runs them ragged to gauge what goes on in the human body gone ballistic.
Case in point: Tina Willett, a 25-year-old competitive cyclist who submitted herself last week to Brahler’s high-tech world of digitally documented sweat and cheers, all aimed at a better understanding of the body’s response to rest and exercise.
The sweat came naturally as Willett’s pulse approached 200 beats a minute and she mustered the all-out effort needed to test her muscles’ ability to convert oxygen and body fuels into energy during exercise.
The cheers come from graduate students led by Brahler, a doctoral student in the departments of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies, Human Nutrition, Pharmacy and Statistics. On top of analyzing data and teaching students how to run exercise physiology tests, Brahler and her team have to spur on their human subjects like a high school hoops audience.
“Keep pedaling!” they shout. “Keep pushing!”
Willett breathed through an awkward tube leading to an analyzer and computer. The computer then used 32 equations to compute the amount of oxygen she was using, which indicated how hard she was exercising, how many grams of fat and carbohydrates she was using, plus the volume of each hurried breath.
To determine when Willett hit her VO2 max, as her maximum oxygen uptake is called, Brahler had to push Willett until her cycling effort increased while her oxygen consumption dropped.
“Don’t think! Just pedal!” she shouted as Willett hung on for one more measurement, then stopped out of sheer necessity after 6-1/2 minutes.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, disappointed that she did not hang in longer.
Subjects aren’t always so willing to please. One undergraduate actually belted Brahler at the peak of a treadmill test.
“At that moment in their life, there’s no social structure,” she said. “They’re an animal working real hard.”
Willett’s effort was mainly for a videotape to teach lab students, but it was similar to a study in which Brahler had 20 students from the WSU varsity crew team go through several tests on a treadmill, a rowing machine and a simulated climbing machine. At times, the women’s coach and coxswain were on hand to coax that extra measure of effort, or oxygen uptake. Some students collapsed.
Brahler’s conclusion, cited in a recent issue of Runner’s World: the climbing machine, a stair-stepper that got more muscles working with an attachment for the arms, pushed VO2 to the max.
“There’s nothing user-friendly about the VersaClimber,” said Brahler, a former marathon runner. “I refer to is as `Dr. Cardiac.”’
For exercise athletes seeking the killer workout, Brahler’s VersaClimber conclusion was good news. For Brahler, it answered the perennial question of whether “whole-body exercise” using the arms and legs raised VO2 levels greater than a more limited exercise like running.
Until now the treadmill was the “golden standard” of testing, getting the highest VO2 levels. Trained skiers could get higher levels on cross-country ski machines, but the VersaClimber doesn’t require any particular skills, opening up such testing to a general population, Brahler said.
As simple as the conclusion seems, the study was a juggling act of student exam, class and workout schedules. All the tests had to be done inside four weeks, so it wouldn’t be thrown off by a change in the athletes’ fitness levels.
For various reasons, she ended up being able to use data from just a little more than half the subjects.
“Good exercise phys research is not that easy,” Brahler said. “I think I’d rather be the subject usually. Then it’s over in 10 minutes.”