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UH Moment

UH Moment: “Environmental Chamber”

Working out can keep you healthy. Working out in extreme hot or cold can work against you. Hear about new research in this UH Moment.


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Brian McFarlin and the Environmental Chamber

Brian McFarlin and the Environmental Chamber

Associate Professor Brian McFarlin and colleague Assistant Professor Richard Simpson are concerned with hot and cold, specifically how working out in extreme climates may suppress the body’s immune system.  They’re using the department of health and human performance‘s environmental chamber to look for factors that put people who work in those conditions at an increase risk for illness. 

Heat illness is a big problem,” McFarlin said.  “Despite the fact that it has been known to be a big problem for at least 50 years, there hasn’t been good data to suggest what the exact risk factors are that contribute to heat related illness.”

The environmental chamber is like a giant cooler—10 X 20, wall-to-wall stainless steel—where researchers control the temperature and humidity. The space can be heated up to 120 degree Fahrenheit or cooled to minus four degrees Fahrenheit to mimic the climate conditions in workouts, like  two-a-day practices in the heat or winter outdoor bike rides.  Subjects ride a stationary bike in the hot or cold chamber.  Their heart and blood are monitored.

Test Subjects in the Environmental Chamber

Test subjects in the Environmental Chamber

McFarlin says elite athletes train in extreme conditions for several events a year.  The stress may make them vulnerable to illnesses.  But when a person with an average work out is exposed to extreme conditions, the result could be much worse.  He says if there was a way to know who is going to be more susceptible, special precautions and strategies could be taken. 

“That’s one thing that we’re really interested in doing is developing the potential risk factors, and trying to identify things that can be measured in an individual and pointed out to a medical staff—this person is at an increased risk,” McFarlin said.  “Knowing that is valuable because that’s the kind of person you’re going to want to watch extra close.  You’re probably going to want to have some aggressive hydration strategies and more aggressive monitoring techniques.”

While other universities have environmental chambers, McFarlin says the research is not the same.  He and his research team are focused on those who ultimately will benefit. 

“We’re certainly interested in collecting data that we can publish, but we’re also interested in generating data that might be helpful to the larger population,” he said. 

The Environmental Chamber is part of what’s happening at the University of Houston.  I’m Marisa Ramirez.

Telling the stories of the University of Houston, this UH Moment is brought to you by KUHF, listener supported radio from the University of Houston.