Pennington Biomedical Research Center is looking for a few good men. Specifically, 18 to 35 year olds who don’t mind lots of exercise, limited sleep and not enough food.
For those who do the work, a hefty $7,500 paycheck is waiting.
Called Optimizing Performance for Soldiers 2, the study seeks to solve a problem soldiers can face in combat, where long days and hard work have them burning through more calories than they take in. The study is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“These three things combined for a long period of time will cause them to lose weight, lose muscle mass and decrease performance,” said Jennifer Rood, principal investigator for OPS 2. “We’re looking at how can we maintain or improve performance in those war fighters.”
As the study title indicates, this is Pennington’s second attempt at this issue. OPS 1 was four years ago. Like the current study, it targeted men ages 18 to 35 and created a program designed to mimic combat conditions. For 21 days of the 50-day study, participants exercised during most waking hours and were provided food but not as many calories as they were burning.
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Under those conditions, men lose weight, and their testosterone levels also drops, which affects them both physically and cognitively, said Rood, Pennington’s associate executive director of cores and resources. That diminishes their effectiveness in combat.
The first study sought to show whether weekly testosterone injections would maintain normal testosterone levels and minimize muscle loss and fatigue and improve performance. It did: All participants lost the same amount of fat, but those receiving testosterone actually gained lean muscle and lost less weight.
However, there were two problems. Weekly injections aren’t practical in many combat situations. Also, they decided the study wasn’t grueling enough.
“The first one, I thought it was a vacation with exercise,” said Gus Britton, 27. “It wasn’t that hard.”
Pennington thinks it’s solved that problem. Instead of giving participants eight hours of sleep during their 20 nights at the center, it will be a mixture of what Rood calls high-stress days (four hours of sleep) and low-stress days (eight hours of sleep). Britton noticed.
“The second, we were waking at 4 a.m. … doing 14 hours of cardio every day in some fashion,” said Britton, who has completed OPS II. “We’d go on morning pack walks every day, come back, eat breakfast, go to the gym before the sun’s even up, work out until the next meal, go back and forth to the gym three or four times a day.”
The participants aren’t just wearing out the treadmill. They do a variety of activities like hikes with 70-pound packs, shoveling sand, carrying water buckets, pulling weighted sleds throughout the day.
The food, however, is limited. On low-stress days, they get 1,000 fewer calories than they’re expending. On high-stress days, it’s 3,000 fewer calories.
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“You always feel hungry before the next meal,” Britton said. “At no point were we getting to the next meal going, ‘No, I’m good.’ You’re always wanting more.”
Paradoxically, that isn’t always the case in combat, when fatigue overcomes hunger, project manager Melissa Harris said. Soldiers will open their MREs and eat only what they like, throwing away the rest, she said. The OPS II rations take that into account.
The one stress the study can’t account for is the fear of death, wounds or capture.
“We’re trying to simulate exactly what happens if they’re in the field or if they’re on a training mission,” Rood said. “We can only do so much. On the first study, we didn’t do the sleep deprivation, and we didn’t see as robust a result as we expected. We know that’s one thing we can control for. We can keep them active for a longer period of time.”
Each participant receives a single injection when the 21-day on-site phase begins. Half receive testosterone, the rest a placebo. No one directly involved with the study — the participants, the nurses giving the injections, Rood or her staff — knows who is getting which, and they won’t until the study is over and the analysis phase begins.
Pennington continues to recruit participants for OPS 2. Candidates must be males age 18-35, be physically active, be willing to live at Pennington for 21 consecutive days and be willing to refrain from alcohol, smoking, e-cigarettes or use of any nicotine product, caffeine and dietary supplement throughout the entire study period. Participants receive $7,500 for completing the study. More information on OPS 2 is available at pbrc.edu/clinical-trials.