11/28/2005: "The Logical Conclusion to $14,615 US"
I really enjoy my subscription to Scientific American. While there are some articles that are simply too cranial for my leisure-oriented consumption, many articles are very interesting, both technically and scientifically. What has caught my attention over the course of the past year, however, has been one particular full-page ad for an exercise machine. Normally I would simply ignore such ads entirely, but this particular ad grabs your attention with a purple large-print banner reading "$14,615". Eventually, I started to notice.
Once I did, my curiosity was engaged. The ad is for an exercise machine called the Range Of Motion machine (or ROM), and its claim to fame, other than a king's ransom price tag, is providing a full-body workout in only four minutes. Supposedly, instead of wasting your precious time going to the gym for an hour, walking, treadmilling, stair climbing, or any other aerobic long-duration activity, you can simply hop on the ROM for four minutes a day and achieve amazing results. Skeptical? You bet. Skeptical, but very curious.
[Warning: This article is quite long and involved. You will need time to not only read it, but digest it as well. I wrote it over the course of a week, so don't expect some nice fluffy reading. You've been advised.]
The reason my curiosity was piqued probably has to do with the fact that I have gone from being a rollerblading dynamo to a sedentary long-distance driving toad. Sales, so far as I can tell, just isn't conducive to an active lifestyle, and now that the crummy weather is well on its way getting outside to be active is a deliberate act of will that I simply don't manage to perform regularly. Thus, the prospect of being able to get a machine that will allow me to work out only 4 minutes a day and get me in shape... well, you can imagine the allure that would hold.
The problem with the ROM is twofold. First, there is the ghastly, incomprehensible, astounding, I'm-sorry-could-you-please-repeat-that-I-had-something-crazy-in-my-ear price tag of $14,615 US. No need to belabour the point, I'm sure you're all solidly with me on this one. The second issue with the ROM is whether or not it works. A four minute full-body workout every day bettering hours of regular activity certainly qualifies as "too good to be true". Although the price tag is steep, money can be found, and its use could be justified. Justified, that is, if the machine actually works as promised. And that's where I start digging.
From the information available on the ROM website, the machine achieves such spectacular results by not just exercising your muscles, but exercising far more muscles at the same time than any other exercise, and thereby increasing muscle metabolism. What that means is that although you only burn a relatively small amount of energy during your 4 minutes of exercise, your body continues to burn energy at an increased level while you aren't exercising.
Your next question, of course, is "how does it manage to perform that particular miracle?" Let's look at what the ROM literature has to say. It claims that one ROM workout engages 55% of your muscles, and puts them through 80% of their entire range of motion (hence the name of the machine). This means that 44% (80% of 55%) of all of your body's muscle cells (not muscles, all muscle CELLS) are stimulated during a workout. By comparison, running on a treadmill engages 25% of your muscles, and puts them through 15% of their range of motion, producing a workout that stimulates 3.75% (15% of 25%) of your muscle cells.
A one-hour workout will stimulate muscles to a much higher level than a four-minute workout will. However, the claim is that stimulating 44% of all muscle cells in your body to, say, 50% of their maximum will increase muscle metabolism to such an extent as to surpass the amount of energy that a combination of an hour's running and the resulting increased muscle metabolism for 3.75% of your muscle cells provides. The ROM website gives an example of an hour on the treadmill burning 350 kcal during that hour, and an additional 65 kcal over the next 24 hours due to increased muscle metabolism. A four-minute ROM workout will burn only 40 kcal, but due to 12 times more muscles being stimulated, 425 kcal are burned over the next 24 hours due to increased muscle metabolism. For those of you keeping score at home, that's 415 kcal for an hour of running versus 465 kcal for a four-minute ROM workout.
The take-away is that it's not how long you exercise, it's how many muscles you can stimulate during a workout. I guess the next step is to put aside how it burns calories, and figure out whether the workout it's giving you is actually good. This is where we can step away from the ROM literature, and get into a much wider body of literature about High Intensity Intermittent Training, or HIIT. HIIT seems to revolve around one main metric called VO2Max, a measure of a person's aerobic capacity, otherwise stated the maximum oxygen consumption a person is capable of during maximum work. Its measure actually encompasses a number of different factors, including the effectiveness of oxygen transfer from the lungs to the blood, the ability of the heart to pump a maximum amount of blood, and the effectiveness of the transfer of oxygen and carbohydrates from the blood to the muscles, among others.
HIIT actually briefly flashed into the mainstream media fairly recently, by my recollection. I remember reading an article (and seeing a newscast report) about HIIT, the focus of both being whether HIIT is worthwhile for your average everyday person, or just for top athletes looking to further improve their already advanced workout regimen. It has been shown quite soundly that HIIT can increase a person's VO2Max, but the question then becomes whether increasing someone's VO2Max necessarily improves their overall physical fitness.
Trying to figure out whether HIIT is appropriate for a low-activity but otherwise healthy blob like myself is a thesis unto itself, and something that I won't try to explore here, but will be following up on myself just for my own enlightenment. However, I have to think that any form of exercise is better than absolutely nothing. If I can figure out a way to find 4 minutes every day (absolutely no problem there) to spend on improving my body in some fashion - even if it's not the optimal way to do it - I would certainly think that I should do that.
We've pretty much cleared off one of the two problems with the ROM. We know now that the workout it provides will benefit me, in some way; my health will improve. That leaves us with the last problem - the $14,615. There are a couple ways I could approach this admittedly daunting problem. First would be to simply somehow find the money. I could wait for a huge commission and splurge. I could try refinance my home to get enough out of my home's equity to pay for a ROM. I could take policies out on my 90-year-old grandmothers and wait. (Tempting.) The second option would be getting someone else to pay for it. I think this option is best.
I've had thoughts of trying to convince my parents to buy one, but that actually does me little good - they'll keep it for themselves and try to pawn off their rowing machine and treadmill on me instead. Short of performing a modern day prodigal son and asking for my inheritance now (but not blowing it on wine and whores), I'll have to find someone else to pay for it for me. The problem is, who has $14,615 to spend on me? Well, no one person does, but a whole bunch of people could easily absorb that cost. They'd even be happy to do so if I let them borrow the machine for 4 minutes a day, don't you think? I guess that's where the premise of the 4 Minute Gym comes in.
It's pretty simple, really. Open a health club that has a handful of ROMs, and sell membership subscriptions. I'd need space for the equipment, two change rooms with showers, and that's about it. Members could come in, change, do their 4 minutes, shower and change back, and get in and out in less than 20 minutes. For people with busy schedules (and who claims to have a leisurely schedule with lots of free time?) and the need to get themselves in better health (and who among us tubby, sedentary Westerners doesn't need that?), such a gym might be a perfect solution to needing exercise, but not having the 5-8 hours a week necessary to work out aerobically at a regular gym. What's more, I'd be providing access to workout machines that 99.9% of the general populace simply would never be able (or willing) to afford, regardless of the benefits.
There is yet another way to go about this, which appeals to the engineer in me (as well as placating my inner spendthrift). Quite simply, I figure out how the machine works, and figure out how to duplicate the resultant body motions on other less expensive equipment, or design my own equipment to do so. The only pictures I've seen of the machine in use are from the 4 Minute Gym website. There you see a man working his upper body and a woman working her lower body. From what I can see in those images, the ROM appears to be two machines rolled into one: a modified rowing machine, and a modified stepping machine. The big difference appears to be the range of motion required to use the ROM over traditional machines. That, and the flywheel with centrifugal clutch resistance mechanism that automatically adjusts the resistance to your level (can you tell I've been reading the literature too much?), is all that really make the ROM special, other than the outlandish price.
It's kind of disappointing, almost. I was expecting a machine that would work pretty much every muscle in my body: lats, delts, pecs, glutes, the whole deal. The ROM appears (to my untrained eye) to miss a good deal of the chest and shoulders, and seems to be limited in the legs as well. Now, I'm no kinesiologist by any means (if you know anyone that is, please have them contact me) but I would think for the price of a small car you should get a machine that covers all the bases. Yes, 55% coverage is good, but why not go for 75%, or even more?
So I'm kind of at a crossroads now. I really do need to get in shape, and I simply can't afford to buy a ROM on my own, so I'm tempted to find some health science grads eager to start a gym and get them financed to start a local 4 Minute Gym. On the other hand, I don't like giving money to people that I know are ripping me off, and in this case I'm fairly certain that the ROM is enjoying a mark-up of probably 400% or more. Likely much more, unless he's making each one by hand. To that end, I really feel the desire to design my own machine that works more muscles, and costs much less. So perhaps I should still start a 4 Minute Gym, but get both health science grads and graduate engineers, ones with interests extending into the other's realm. They could start small with some ROMs, evaluate them, and then design me better machines, all while running the gym.
Either way, it starts with some ROMs and a local gym. So that is probably where I'm going to spend some time mentally. It's a small enough operation that family funding could be sufficient to get it up and running. With a technology park, lots of big businesses, and two universities close at hand, I'm pretty confident that there is enough of a population base for what I'm proposing, especially if I'm offering health benefits at a cost of 4 minutes a day. I guess I need to crunch some numbers, figure out some targets, and make a pitch to my venture capitalists. I need to do this soon - I'm not getting any fitter sitting here typing this.