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  May 1, 2000

Armstrong's Book a Guide to Effects
of Harsh Environments on Performance

Although Larry Armstrong is not an artist, he has become a master at identifying the variations of the color yellow.

Armstrong, an exercise physiologist and an associate professor of kinesiology, has studied the shades of yellow in his pursuit to create an accurate urine color chart. While bodily fluids might not be a comfortable topic for discussion in all social settings, it is a subject aimed at optimizing health and saving lives - from athletes to the elderly.

"What many people don't understand is that when you start to feel thirsty you are already about two percent dehydrated, and in a hot environment that stress is already beginning to affect the heart and other vital organs," Armstrong says.

So serious is the dehydration issue with the U.S. Forest Service that it has requested permission to turn Armstrong's chart into a pocket-sized version to be distributed to 20,000 wildland firefighters in five federal agencies. The groups include: the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Eventually, federal authorities plan to supply the chart to another 60,000 state and rural firefighters.

"Heat stress injuries occur all the time and occasionally, so do fatalities. Anything we can do to keep firefighters aware of their hydration status is critical," says Brian Sharkey, a physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service's Missoula Technology and Development Center and a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

"When we saw the chart and saw it was validated, using it seemed like an excellent idea," Sharkey says. "We've known that (urine) color mattered and now Dr. Armstrong has proved that concept."

To create the color chart, Armstrong and his colleagues at UConn's Human Performance Laboratory conducted four separate studies examining the urine color and hydration status of 63 college students and athletes. Their laboratory and field work resulted in the creation of a very specific color guide.

Armstrong says the chart is now the simplest and least expensive method available to check hydration. He believes it is a tool that hospitals and nursing homes could use, as well as those who exercise and work in extreme environments.

The National Athletic Trainers' Association is planning to supply its 25,000 members with the chart, and several thousand copies soon will be included in a textbook of military medicine.

In fact, he first came up with the idea for the chart while observing military reservists. His concept was later validated in two scientific papers published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition, and is now included in his new book, Performing in Extreme Environments, published by Human Kinetics.

In the book, Armstrong examines the physiological impact of eight different environments - including heat, cold and underwater pressure - on people who train, work or perform in those conditions. He shows how adjusting behavior, training patterns, eating habits, fluids, clothing, medications or the air mixture breathed can counteract detrimental environmental stressors.

"My goal was to write a guidebook that provided objective information and practical advice in a way that most people could understand," Armstrong says, "whether they are a recreational enthusiast, elite athlete or outdoor laborer."

Armstrong has had plenty of opportunity to experience and observe how environmental factors affect body regulation and performance. He is an avid runner who has completed 14 marathons. For the past eight years, he has collected research data while assisting medical teams at the Boston Marathon and the Falmouth, Mass., Road Race. At the Falmouth event each year, he sees at least a dozen runners who suffer heatstroke.

His research into the effects of extreme conditions, particularly heat, began while working at the U.S. Army Research Institute in Natick, Mass., and his fieldwork took him to hot spots in Australia, Panama and Texas.

Armstrong arrived at UConn nine years ago and teamed with Carl Maresh, professor and department head, and several other colleagues to bring the Human Performance Laboratory into regional and national prominence in the areas of exercise-heat stress, fluid electrolyte balance, and sport nutrition.

Janice Palmer