Running Exoskeletons: Future of Sport or Rehab?

On my morning drive up the coast to work, I was listening to the Joe Rogan Experience with guest Zoltan Istvan. Zoltan is a transhumanist advocate and is intending on running for President on the platform. Interesting idea, but not quite sure it translates to an entire political platform. The part of the podcast that really caught my attention was that of exoskeletons. Recently, there has been increased development and buzz around exoskeletons crafted for the human body.

So what exactly is an exoskeleton? If you’ve ever seen the movie “Ironman”, then this is a good example of an exoskeleton and what it can do. The uses and features vary depending on the application, but I’m most interested in it as it applies to running. Exoskeletons are being developed that will aid a runner in recovery, endurance, and strength. This link from MIT shows an exoskeleton that acts as an artificial knee, increasing the endurance and power of the runner.

http://biomech.media.mit.edu/portfolio_page/load-bearing-exoskeleton-for-augmentation-of-human-running/

http://biomech.media.mit.edu/portfolio_page/load-bearing-exoskeleton-for-augmentation-of-human-running/

DARPA also is developing exoskeletons for the military in order to enable soldiers to carry more, run faster, and fatigue less. Essentially, human robots.

http://www.eteknix.com/soldiers-running-4-minute-miles-thanks-to-darpas-exoskeleton/

http://www.eteknix.com/soldiers-running-4-minute-miles-thanks-to-darpas-exoskeleton/

While this technology is rather rad, I think it brings up some interesting questions, potential problems, and a rethinking of the sport.

I see exoskeletons being really good for the following:

1. Physical Therapy – These devices can help patients relearn how to walk/run safely by allowing the body weight felt to be decreased all the way up to 80% off (similar to Alter-G Treadmill). This allows a patient to rebuild strength and the exoskeleton could also be used to relearn gait. It is my understanding that the exoskeleton can be programmed to help walk or run which could be extremely beneficial for someone who has decreased motor control as well as to teach proper running biomechanics.

2. Lifting Ability – There are a lot of back breaking jobs out there that can potentially put people at risk such as firemen, movers, construction, military, etc. The exoskeleton can help by taking the brunt of the weight so as to allow the moving of heavy objects more safely by less people.

3. Weight Transfer – The exoskeleton by DARPA has the ability to detect injury and weakness in the body and shift the weight accordingly. This allows for continued running despite fatigue and injury over long distances making for a safer sport.

I see exoskeletons posing a dilemma in the following areas:

1. Atrophy – We all know that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Example being astronauts who are not able to stress their tissues, muscles, and bones in space the same way they are able to on earth. As a result, they return to earth with atrophied muscles and bones that can very quickly lead to injury under the standard loading of gravity. If people become too dependent on running exoskeletons for movement, they may be unable to move themselves under their own power.

2. Running Records Dilemma – Lately, I have had a difficult time deciding what is “evolution of sport” and which is unfair advantage. It is something I think the endurance industry is struggling with in general whether it be EPO, Altitude Training, Supplements, or other types of performance enhancement. However, anything that increases performance, is indeed a performance enhancer by definition. It is a blurry line determining which advancements are evolution of sport, accepted as the new landscape and which should be illegal. Example carbon fiber bikes are far superior to steel bikes and are accepted as part of cycling now. On the other hand, EPO is illegal (which I agree with as I see the potential dangers). So who is to decide which is evolution and which should be banned? Where should running exoskeletons fall or will it be a new category? With the DARPA running exoskeleton, soldiers can run a 4 minute mile with a pack on. With those types of abilities the 2 hour marathon would be a joke.

3. Safety – With super-humans running around on their exoskeletons, there comes the issue of safety. Exoskeleton humans would have a huge advantage over non exoskeleton humans in fights, competitions, daily life, and many more areas. There would be a lot of responsibility with having a running exoskeleton and there would also need to be a regulation on the technology and how it is used.

I think the evolution of human movement is very exciting and there is a lot to look forward to in the future. As with anything we need to be cautious about how it is used and regulated. What are your thoughts on running exoskeletons?

Always in Stride,

Jack

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