New exercise idea 'hacks the brain'
Machine cools muscles in effort to mimic young muscles
Peter Wasowski wishes he was a kid again, but not for the reasons you might think. He doesn't yearn for the freedom of summer vacations or the wonder and innocence of childhood. He is more interested in the rate at which children are able to recover from vigorous exercise.
So, Wasowski founded Vasper, an exercise technology venture in coordination with NASA that's based at Moffett Field. It seeks to trick the brains and bodies of adults (and ultimately astronauts) — fooling them into to mimicking the biological processes that occur in the muscles of children running around a playground.
The Vasper system "hacks the brain," as Wasowski puts it, via a number of mechanisms. Vasper's clients are put through a 20-minute workout on a seated eliptical machine while wearing a cooling vest and helmet, along with arm bands and leg bands that both cool the extremities and restrict blood flow.
When humans exert themselves for an extended period of time, a compound called "lactic acid" builds up in the muscles. This liquid is what causes the "burn" felt after lifting weights or running up a hill.
The minimal constriction of the Vasper arm and leg bands prevents some of the lactic acid from being carried away from the muscles — meaning people using the Vasper system will "feel the burn" much more quickly than they would otherwise.
"If we can concentrate huge amounts of lactic acid (in the muscles) with compression, you basically mimic the similar feedback physiology between your muscles and your brain when you were 5 to 9 years old — before puberty," Wasowski says.
Pre-pubescent "children have a very high concentration of this lactic acid, because they are small — their muscle size is small and their body size is small," Wasowski says. These high lactic-acid levels result in high levels of human growth hormone, which is one reason children are able to recover from serious injuries in a way adults cannot.
Unfortunately, Wasowski says, once we hit puberty, "it's not possible to attain the same amount of concentration (of lactic acid) in the muscles anymore." With that dip in concentration also comes a continual drop in the natural release of human growth hormone.
Wearing the vasoconstrictive cooling suit while engaging in vigorous exercise for 20 minutes tricks the body into thinking that the muscles have accumulated 2.5 hours worth of lactic acid, he says. This, in turn, causes the brain to tell the pituitary gland to release appropriate levels of the muscle-building human growth hormone.
"What we're doing here is, we're hacking the brain to think that you have broken down the muscle tissue when in fact you have not," he says. "The brain responds with a very high increase of your own (growth) hormone to repair this muscle, which, in fact, has not been damaged."
The cooling vest and helmet help bring down the bodies core temperature, which reduces sweating, Wasowski says. That is important, he explains, because when the body sweats, more blood is distributed to the vasculature just beneath the skin in order to cool the body down. When the body is cool, more blood can be sent to the muscles, increasing the efficiency of a given workout.
Wasowski says that the Vasper system can push the body to produce between 300 and 1,200 percent more growth hormone than it typically would over a similar exercise session without vasoconstriction.
Shirley Reekie, professor and chair of the kinesiology department at San Jose State, is an avid rower. Earlier this month, she and fellow kinesiology associate professor Peggy Plato were invited to try out the Vasper system for themselves.
Neither Reekie nor Plato were prepared to endorse or reject the Vasper system's claims. Both approached Wasowski's claims scientifically, saying they would keep an open mind and that they would be interested in seeing the data of further studies as it becomes available.
Reekie did say that she "felt the burn" Wasowski promised and that it was a more intense burn than she believes she would have experienced had she not been exercising in the Vasper system.
"I don't have an opinion on it yet," says Plato, an exercise physiologist. She did say that Wasowski's theories seemed completely logical. "With the constrictions on the limbs, it would certainly appear to me that it would increase lactic acid levels."
There is at least one other method by which some exercise enthusiasts believe you can naturally boost human growth hormone production — by simply by taking a capsule or two of L-Arginine, an amino acid. The supplement is sold at health stores such as GNC. Craig Cisar, an exercise physiology professor at San Jose State, has heard that the supplement increases the muscle-building hormone in the body, but he would not say whether it was actually effective, as he was not aware of any conclusive studies saying L-Arginine works.
Wasowski seconded Cisar's assessment of the supplement, noting that while the literature is also thin on Vasper, NASA has agreed to a collaborative research project, which aims to explore whether Wasowski's invention might provide better, more efficient exercise for astronauts, whose muscles suffer great degeneration while in the zero-gravity environment of space.
"NASA will benefit by having the opportunity to test various aspects of the unique Vasper system that are not available elsewhere," the contract says.