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Hypoxic Chamber Installed at PEIF

NMU is one of only a handful of universities nationwide to own a hypoxic chamber. The unit was installed this week in an exercise science laboratory in the PEIF. Deceptively simple in its design, the system is capable of producing oxygen-reduced air that simulates altitudes of up to 20,000 feet. Athletes once had to live in or travel to high elevations to achieve boosted red blood cell levels for better oxygen carrying capacity to enhance endurance. A chamber that mimics altitude’s “thin air” serves to potentially enhance oxygen carrying capacity without the travel hassle or expense of living “high.” Scott Drum (HPER) says the system has applications for athletes and mountaineers. It also presents broad research opportunities related to the impact of high altitude on performance, cognition and obesity. 

“Oxygen is our body’s main source of aerobic energy, so when you’re first exposed to a hypoxic environment, your body has to work harder with less available oxygen to achieve the same result,” said Drum, pictured below with NMU student Megan Jenkins. “This struggle to compensate causes a chain of physiological reactions. You literally feel like a fish out of water. Your volume of oxygen is suppressed. Your respiratory rate is higher. Dehydration occurs faster because of the drier air. During acute or after extended or repeated exposure to hypoxia, your kidneys produce more EPO (erythropoietin hormone), generating more red blood cells that increase oxygen-carrying capacity, which may enhance endurance performance. I spent 12 years in Colorado and it was a noticeable difference when runners from sea level first arrived compared with after they had trained there a few weeks.”

Drum is an ultramarathon runner. He completes distances of 30-50 miles, including a summer trek that covered the length of Isle Royale. Potentially, he plans to serve as the first research subject, sleeping in the chamber for up to a month-long period. Drum will run a timed 5K trial on the Superior Dome track before the intervention, train consistently throughout and compare his red blood cell count and hemoglobin mass afterward.

“The hypoxic chamber isn’t just for me; it will be available to everyone in our school to diversify our research,” he said. “Randy (Jensen) and Phil (Watts) encouraged me to run with the idea and it fits well with what they’re already studying related to sports performance and rock climbing, among other projects. Additionally, we hope to collaborate with other NMU departments and the local medical community on research projects. Because hypoxia has been shown to raise metabolism and suppress appetite, it also has implications for obesity. And who knows where it might lead. There are a couple of altitude houses in the United States. All the rooms are hypoxic. These places invite training groups, Nordic skiers, marathon runners and bikers for extended stays. Could we become a destination like that where it’s best to ‘live high and train low?’”

Students will be involved in the research. Two NMU construction management majors helped to assemble the unit, which will be put to use beginning in January. It was purchased from Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems. The company offers home and commercial systems. Its website features prominent athletes who have used altitude training products, including Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and NBA star LeBron James.