All in the Name of Science

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Hey there sports fans. As a few of you have been peripherally aware, I recently volunteered my body for science! I’ve kept some people in the dark as to what that meant, in hopes of compiling some fun pictures and writing up a blog post. Well, the time has come to tell you my little story. Hope you enjoy it. You can also feel free to browse through my little folder of pictures that I convinced people to take for me during the whole process. Head over to flickr for that folder.

How did I end up as part of a study you ask? Well, one of the websites that I read quite regularly (actually, it’s a daily email as well) is TriRudy, which is a website for local triathletes. Essentially, people post all sorts of things there, like discussions on sports, announcements regarding races, race reports, items for sale, etc. Another thing that pops up now and again is Master’s and PhD students from Ottawa U that are looking for test subjects for their theses. That is how I was lured into it. The ad promised a free VO2 max test and DEXA scan as compensation for taking part in the study. These are things I’ve been keen to have done, but never felt like forking over the several hundred dollars to do so. They were looking for males, aged 18-35, and I fit the bill. So call it a bit of selfishness if you will, but I heeded the call. Now on with the story.

So what, you may ask, did I volunteer for exactly? Hmm, I guess the simplest answer I can come up with is: The effect of Cold Exposure on the Regulation of the Fat Metabolism. The first line of the informed consent form reads something like this:

The purpose of this study is to investigate the effect of glucose ingestion on the capacity of the body to utilize lipids, proteins and carbohydrates for supplying the energy demand during cold-exposure in humans.

Meaning what, exactly? Well, perhaps a better way to understand what I signed up for, you can get a snippet of the first email I got from the person performing the study.

The trials will take place between 8 am and 12 pm at the Montfort Hospital (BMRU Laboratory), whereby you will be exposed to a cold condition (this will be performed by fitting you with a liquid conditioned suit, which pumps cold water through it) eliciting a light to moderate shivering response. This shivering will last for 2.5 hours. 1 hour into the cold condition you will receive a large dose of glucose. We will then measure the effects of ingesting such a dose on the fuels you select [ed. fuels your body uses] when shivering. In terms of the instrumentation being used, there will be catheters inserted in both arms, one to draw blood samples and the other to infuse glucose tracers (the tracer is glucose with a labeled carbon component). An esophageal probe will also be inserted through the nose, and sitting in your esophagus to measure internal temperature. This is the extent of the invasive instrumentation being used, however you will also be fitted with skin temperature probes (disks that are taped to the skin) and EMG probes (also taped to the skin), but you will hardly notice they’re there.

This was followed by the cheerful “If you’re still interested, let me know.”. Esophageal tube? What? Hmm, I had to think about that one over the weekend. I really wasn’t keen on that aspect of the testing. After chatting with a few other people who have done similar tests in the past, I decided to go for it anyway, since I really wanted the other two tests.

Monday morning, I wrote back, saying I was in, but not thrilled about the probe aspect, and wanted to do it sooner rather than later, due to uncertainties in my near future. This was a stroke of luck for me. As it turned out, Denis was actually looking for a guinea pig for the pilot study. This meant a few good things for me. Firstly, no esophageal probe! Yay! Secondly, the glucose would be drunk rather than injected, so only one catheter would be needed! Yay again. A few more back and forth emails and I was set for my VO2 max test this past Monday, followed by my first chill suit session today, and finished off with my second session next Thursday. All I had to do in the meantime was limit my physical exertion during the times before tests (at least 24 hours resting).

D’oh! Well, for starters, as you know, I was racing hard on Saturday, and followed that up with a tough 2 hour spin class on Sunday. So much for well rested for my VO2 Max test. I rested as best I could for that test, knowing full well that the test is a run to breakdown test, meaning quite a lot of body stress. It doesn’t help that I’ve been paranoid that I’m catching something (luckily not Norwalk…). Regardless, Monday rolled around, and I psyched myself up to give it all that I had. The protocol used for this test would be essentially constant speed, with increasing incline every 2 minutes. I warmed up for about 10 minutes at 12 km/hr, then the speed was dropped to 9.6 km/hr. Easy peasy, right? Well, it was…at first.

When I asked how long the test would take, Denis told me most people go 8-12 minutes. Happily, I lasted 14 minutes. I hit the highest slope they do, I think. It was not easy! By the end, my legs were turning to jello, and I was tapped. Of course, that makes sense, given that at that point, I was fully anaerobic. That’s when I’m no longer using oxygen! Crazy. The worst part was the crazy headgear you have to wear, and the fact that your nose is plugged. It’s like scuba-diving on a treadmill. When all was said and done, my normalized results came out to 63. What does that mean? Well, I asked Denis if he saw that number in isolation what he would say, and I was told “elite-level athlete that trains hard, and trains correctly. Very good score.” A standard “weekend warrior” doing the odd race and fun runs, etc, i.e. “in shape”, would be happy to get a 45. Above 50 is great, above 60, awesome! Granted, Mr. Armstrong was tested over 80, but I took comfort in the knowledge that in my prime, my VO2 max is as good as Lance on an off day (as per his book “It’s not about the Bike”). I found another neat site that talks about the values for VO2 max. Check it out here.

After the test, Denis handed me a 5Lb frozen lasagna. What for? Well, they needed to standardize the fuel intake before the actual experiment. I was told to eat 1/4 of it Wednesday night, and to not eat or drink anything else before the test (apart from water). Next Wednesday, it’ll be the same drill. So, I guess you could say I got a couple free suppers out of them too. They are also supposed to cover my parking, and give me vouchers for lunch at the hospital on both test days. Sweet. Nothing better than free stuff, right? Well, I still had to go through the test, so I reserved judgment. The next couple days went by quickly. I only did my physio exercises, skipping swimming and biking. I wanted to be a good subject. Last night, I packed up my bag, with a book and some DVDs to watch (at Denis’ suggestion) while in the chill suit. That brings us to the actual experiment day 1.

This morning I got up at like 6:45am, since I had to be at the hospital by 7:30am. We started off by doing the Dexa scan, which is basically a massive, full body x-ray machine that analyzes all sorts of stuff. You can see my results on flickr if you’re a contact of mine. The result was that I have good bone density, apparently, but my body fat is at 17.9%! What? I thought I’d be much less than that, but I have been a bit lazy since Christmas and my injury I guess. Apparently, I’ve got a spare tire in the trunk, as the measurement specific to my trunk read 22%! Well, now I know what I have to do, right? Of course, the number is still fine. I fit into the “fitness” range, but not the “athlete” range, according to one website. Well, we’ll fix that in the marathon prep again this year! Not only that, but it makes me question the accuracy of my home scale. I’d tend to think the hundreds of thousands of dollars machine should be more accurate than my $100 home scale, but still… anywho, enough dwelling on fatsteve, on to the experiment.

Next came putting on the somewhat smelly chill suit. No problem there. It fit quite nice, and kept me cozy in the crisp air of the cooling room. Pants, shirt, and hood, all fitted with tubing to pipe water (hot or cold). Apparently, some troops use a modified version of these suits in the desert in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. Crazy. They wear it to be comfortable. Me? I wear it to be uncomfortable. Go figure. I was lead to my little room, with a TV and DVD player, as well as some of the monitoring equipment. The room had the AC cranked, and Denis even complained a few times that it was chilly. Well, he had nothing compared to me ;-). Next, the nurse came in and poked and prodded my vein to get the catheter in. Actually, it was very smooth. I have well defined veins in that part of my arm, so she had no problems with it, although she did leave the catheter uncapped at one point, allowing a nice little rivulet of blood to flow out of me. Luckily, I’m not squeamish in the least, and found it fun.

For the next 15 or 20 (first) minutes, I just lay there warm on a bed. I had a blanket, and they were baselining everything. Of course, the requisite headgear also came out. Same job as on the VO2 max test. I had to have my nose plugged and wear the damn thing the whole time. The worst part is that you can’t help but drool while it’s on, so you get some nice strings of saliva from your lips. Oh well, no one said science was glamorous! On with the test! After the baseline, the test was truly underway. Off with the blanket, on with the 4 degree C water. I pretty much felt it right away, I mean, you just can’t escape it. That makes for a strange experience in itself. Some would likely be claustrophobic about it. I’m in a room, on a bed, covered from head to toe, including headgear, with cold water circulating all around me. I can’t curl up, can’t warm up, can’t do anything but lay there and take it! Luckily, I got to watch both my Tomb Raider movies, so I didn’t go completely mental, but it was hard to focus on anything other than the uncomfortableness of it all.

My only respite, or at least clues of the progress were the intermittent blood tests. For the first hour, blood was taken at the 30 minute marks. For the subsequent 1.5 hours, every 15 minutes. I was determined to will myself not to shiver as best I could. They were quite impressed I think for a while, as it took a good 30 minutes, before I truly started convulsing. Yeah. Convulsing. I know, it’s just shivering, but it feels like my muscles are convulsing. I would do my best to will that away, but the whole time, I was keeping my body very tense anyway. My guess as to why is that when muscles are tense, blood has to rush to them, so that keeps you a bit warmer. I also tried to keep perfectly still, because any moves would generally result in quick coldness from exposing a different part of me to the cold tubes. It was definitely not comfortable, but not totally maddening either.

After the first 50 minutes, I was told to use the washroom. One of the side-effects of cold is of course the desire to urinate. I was glad I hadn’t drank too much that morning (i.e. anything). I asked him what if I don’t have to go? His response was to try my hardest, because I’d really want to later. Fair enough. He gave me a little jug with a handle (yup, pretty much like a Trailer Park Boys piss jug), and told me he’d leave me alone for a moment. I was advised not to move much, as they wanted to keep me cold. I managed to squeeze the lemon a little bit, but there wasn’t much in the tank. When Denis returned, he passively stretched my legs a bit, to ward off cramping. Then, it was glucose time. I’d love to say it had a restorative effect, but it didn’t. It was just like carbonated juice. It wasn’t to make me feel any better, but just to see if the body would use fat stores, or use the carbohydrates as fuel while I was shivering. At least I got to take the damn headgear off while I drank (3 minutes).

After the drink, it was back to torture time. For the next 1.5 hours, I had to lie still, shivering, while they drew blood from me every 15 minutes. I’d be lying if I said didn’t want to get out of that suit and under a warm blanket. However, I signed up for this, and I’ll see it through. Yes, even the second session. They have a hard enough time finding volunteers, but I wonder how many only do one session and don’t return? After all, we’re volunteers. Oh well. The movie played on, and the discomfort and shivering carried on (maybe even increased, but I’m sure it was mental). I’m pretty sure if you wanted to torture someone, this would be a good way to do it. Strap them in, and make em suffer 🙂 Every time the nurse would come to take my blood, I’d try to stay still, and mentally ticked off another 15 minutes. Let me tell you, the last 30 minutes were the worst. You know you’re close, but you also know you’re not quite there. The final 15? Hell. I was sure he forgot about me, even though he was right there.

Finally, the 2.5 hours was over. One final blood sample and I could start shedding my arctic over-suit. I couldn’t wait to strip down to my skimpy tri shorts. Anything would be warmer than the suit. By that point, however, that was easier said than done. I was quite stiff and unbalanced trying to stand up. My arms were pretty cold, and I had a hard time willing them to get the gear off. Thawing out took longer than I expected. My 20 minute warm shower just left me shivering still. The water wasn’t too warm, and the little shower room was cold. Or at least felt it. I toweled off quickly, and slipped into my thermal underwear, pants, shirt, hoody, etc. Still cold, but at least dry, clean and warming up. I contemplated putting on my down jacket, hat, and gloves, but I didn’t want to appear too wimpy!

I went back to the test room to check out some of the results and ask about them. It’s amazing what they can get just from my exhaled gases. This was the main data-gathering device. From that data, Denis was showing me at which points my body was using mainly fat stores vs. mainly carbs, and where it was a mix. Neat-o stuff. However, it was getting late (almost noon), and technically, I was supposed to be at work. Denis gave me a voucher and showed me the cafeteria. The lunch was actually quite decent. I had a pork and veggie stir-fry with tasty sauce and vermicelli. Yum. I wolfed that down and headed to the office. By now, I’ve recovered my body heat, but I have a general feeling of full body tiredness, from the 2+ hours of tensing my muscles and shivering. I think I’ll sleep well tonight 😉

Well, that’s my long winded story about how I loaned my body to science. All in all, I don’t regret a thing. I feel good about having volunteered, and will definitely do round 2 next week. After that though, I’m not so sure if I’d repeat that test again. Maybe a different experiment. It was fun, but at the same time, it drove me just a little crazy during the process! Hope you enjoyed my story.

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