Colorado State professor studies the effects of high altitude on endurance

Imagine taking a nine hour flight to La Paz, Bolivia and then taking a five hour bus ride to the top of the country’s highest mountain with an oxygen mask strapped to your face.

This past summer, 25 college students from Eugene, Ore., got to experience this firsthand. They were chosen for a study conducted by Adam Chicco, a professor in the health and exercise science department.

“[We] are studying the physiological effects of altitude on mitochondrial function,” Chicco said.

Students were specifically chosen from Eugene because the city sits at only 400 feet. This served as the baseline for the study. Then the students were transported to Bolivia’s highest mountain, Mt. Chacaltaya, at 17,000 feet.

Once on the summit, students removed their oxygen masks. The oxygen masks served as a regulator of their oxygen intake, so that the data would be accurate. They went from 400 feet to 17,000 feet in an instant.

Chicco and his team performed biopsies on the students’ leg muscle to obtain two 10 to 20 milligram samples. From the samples, they are able to analyze the effects that altitude have on mitochondrial function and muscle performance.

“Students experienced headaches, vomiting, fainting, and pulmonary adema,” said Catherine Le, a Ph.D. student in the cell and microbiology department at CSU. She also traveled with the students and stayed in Bolivia to conduct the research.

The study lasted seven weeks in total. During that time, the students were able to explore while being poked and prodded. They did not have any specific exercise regimen, but had meals prepared for them.

“They were fed quinoa, lentils and organic fruit and vegetables,” said Sherri Kark, the dietician that traveled to Bolivia with the group.

It took the students a while to adjust to the high altitude, especially because they were so used to the altitude in Oregon.

“Two weeks is thought to be long enough for physiological adjustments to take place,” Le said. The acclimation process varied from each student, which can be seen from all the data gathered.

Acclimation factors lead to weight loss, according to Kark. Factors include lack of oxygen, little to no exercise, change in diet, decrease in appetite and an increase in metabolism. With such little oxygen in the air, the body burns more carbohydrates in an effort to keep up.

During the study, Kark obtained each student’s body fat percentage by measuring their skin fold.

“All of the measurements went down. Students lost anywhere from a couple of pounds to seven pounds,” Kark said.

These measurements were taken to see how people are impacted by different environments and altitudes.

“We are not only seeing how people deal with altitude exposure –– we want to predict how they’ll do,” Chicco said.

Based on the data, it appears that some students were better acclimated than others. One male student, for example, had an oxygen saturation level of 94 percent after removing his oxygen mask. The majority of students were operating at an oxygen saturation level of around 60 to 70 percent.

The next step in the study is to obtain the same data from Bolivian natives. Although all of the data has not been collected or analyzed, some conclusions have been made.

“It is well documented that at high altitudes, you lose weight,” Kark said.

Student Life Beat Reporter Amanda Zetah can be reached at news@collegian.com.