Rocky Mountain high: 13 applied exercise science and athletic training students with an altitude

Front Row L-R: Kaitlin Murray, Cory Kymalainen, Rachel Harris, Sarah Medwar, Stacie Lee, Kimberly Martins, and Michelle Williams; Back Row L-R: Matthew Marcoux, Orlando Gomes, Jonathon Lyon, Patrick Hillman, Zachary Chase, Taylor Feuti, and Dr. Paul Visich

June 25, 2012

Thirteen University of New England Applied Exercise Science (AES) and Athletic Training (AT) students spent five days in May living and conducting research at 11,000 feet above sea level in the 10th Infantry Cabins at Vail Pass, Colorado.

"Within the first day of living at 11,000 feet, I already started feeling short of breath and constantly thirsty," Caitlin Murray '13, an AES major, explains. "I noticed myself taking deeper breaths than normal and waking up almost every hour during the night possibly to regulate my breathing a little better. It took a couple days for the minor headaches to subside and before I slept through most of the night, but I felt constantly thirsty all week."

The students also hiked up to the summit of nearby Mount Quandary. "The day of the climb where we reached 14,265 feet was where most of us felt the greatest effects of altitude," according to AT major Stacie Lee '12. "It never did feel like we caught our breath and as we neared the summit we had to stop to take deeper breaths every few steps."

The trip was the idea of Paul Visich, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor and chair of the Department of Exercise and Sport Performance. The students were from an Environmental Physiology class taught by Lara Carlson, Ph.D., assistant professor of applied exercise science. The research was led by students from Carlson's class who were also taking Visich's Research Methods class.

Altitude

Most of the students had never experienced high elevations, but altitude is an excellent example of how the body can physiologically adjust to lower partial pressures of oxygen.  

Professor Visich explains that "having experienced what it feels like to be at high elevations gives exercise science and athletic training students a better understanding of what it means to be short of breadth when they are working with athletes and patients."

Initial adjustment to altitude takes a couple days at 11,000 feet. The term acute mountain sickness (AMS) is used to describe the symptoms people sometimes experience.  Symptoms vary and have no relation to an individual's current fitness level. 

The students and faculty members experienced different degrees of acute mountain sickness, which included headache, fatigue, stomach illness, dizziness, and sleep disturbances.

The experience also provided some insights into the phenomenon of altitude training.  Living at high altitude has become a common practice for elite athletes because it causes the body to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which deliver more oxygen to working muscles.  Ultimately it is a way to increase one's level of exercise performance  -  in other words, go at a faster pace.  

Because living at altitude is not practical for many people, some athletes sleep in devices referred to as altitude tents, which simulate the conditions of high elevations. 

Research

The trip had a research component. Professor Visich, who came to UNE in 2011, had taught altitude physiology at Central Michigan University and had conducted similar trips in the past.

Visich explained that "the purpose of the UNE research project was to see if one's perception of exertion while exercising remains a valid tool to recognize the intensity of exercise while being at altitude.  One's "rating of perceived exertion" or RPE is a common way to recognize one's level of exercise intensity, but we are not sure if this remains a valid tool at altitude."  

Perceived exertion is based on the physical sensations a person experiences during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased respiration or breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue.

During the semester, the students in Visich's class conducted a literature review and developed a written description of the research project.  They also worked with Professor Carlson to complete the baseline testing of the 13 students' RPEs on a stationary bike in a UNE lab, which is at sea level.

A similar bike was available at the 10th Infantry Cabins in Vail Pass to conduct the same tests. The students as in mid-June were in the process of analyzing the data. 

AES major Murray, the student research team's primary investigator, said "This project was really exciting, and it was really a privilege to get to do research in two separate environments. We learn in a classroom about all the changes we expect to see, but to actually research and observe what we learned about makes learning so much more interesting."

Rachel Harris '13, an AES major, agreed "There's such a difference between learning about AMS and actually feeling it when you find yourself winded just by walking around a grocery store.... Research definitely is time committing, but it allows for growth not always achieved in a classroom setting."

The students also concurred that during the trip they learned a lot about the importance of working as a team.

"All throughout our trip everybody was trying to help others with tasks," AES major Taylor Feuti explained, "like cooking and cleaning, to even bigger things like carrying their packs up the mountain so they had a better chance of making it to the top. I was really impressed with how well we all came together, worked together to get everybody to the summit."