Hi-Tech Treadmills Let Nonwalkers 'Walk'

Lauren Gibbs, 13, who has spinal muscular atrophy, practices running in an AlterG treadmill. The AlterG works by suspending Lauren on a cushion of air at the same time as it gently holds her upright. She pronounced it "really cool."
Article Highlights:
  • A new generation of high-tech treadmills are enabling people with strength and mobility problems to exercise in virtually weightless environments.
  • These treadmills employ water, harnesses and air pressure to lift users off the ground and suspend them above the treadmill surface, allowing them to exercise without putting weight on weak or damaged muscles.
  • Although high-tech treadmills are expensive to own, many are available for use at gyms and rehab centers across the country. One man with muscular dystrophy says using an anti-gravity treadmill at a gym in Kansas City “changed my life.”
  • Two short videos show sisters with SMA using hi-tech anti-gravity and underwater treadmills.
by Miriam Davidson on October 1, 2010 - 5:00pm

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 4

For many people, being able to walk or run is no big deal. But for sisters Lauren and Claire Gibbs of Roeland Park, Kan., it is a very big deal indeed.

Lauren, 13, and Claire, 12, both of whom have spinal muscular atrophy, recently were given the opportunity to try the latest technology in treadmills. To their amazement and delight, Claire, who can’t walk, walked while using an underwater treadmill, and Lauren, who can’t run, ran while using a space-age, anti-gravity treadmill called the AlterG.

With the help of her father Tim, Claire Gibbs, 12, who has spinal muscular atrophy, uses an underwater treadmill. The first photo shows Claire, in a waterproof wheelchair, waiting on the treadmill platform as it descends into the water. The second photo shows Claire from above after the wheelchair has been taken away and the treadmill begins to move. The last two photos show Claire’s feet through an underwater viewing portal.

“It was a really cool experience and so much fun,” reports Lauren of her 15-minute workout in the AlterG. “The people there with me had never seen me run. My dad was almost in tears.”

Claire, meanwhile, found her experience on the underwater treadmill equally exciting. “It feels like I’m walking, and it’s a good feeling, because I’ve never been able to walk,” she says.

“These machines are miracle makers,” says Travis Worley, community relations director for the Kansas City facility where Lauren tried the AlterG. “They’ve done amazing things for people.”

Treadmills then and now

These days, treadmills — that old exercise equipment stalwart — have gone high tech. Traditional, land-based models now run the gamut from simple to elaborate, with an available variety of sizes, speeds, cushioning, displays, heart-rate monitors, fans, Wi-Fi, iPod and MP3 ports, and other features. Some also offer optional features, such as movable handlebars and overhead harnesses, to aid people with limited mobility.

TreadmillReview.net offers ratings and reviews of several makes and models of traditional treadmills, including Sole, NordicTrack, Smooth and Proform. A traditional treadmill can be had for as little as $650, but for quality, safety and durability, the site recommends spending at least $1,000. Land-based treadmills with harnesses cost more; GlideTrak offers a harness system for about $3,000, including shipping.

Underwater treadmills

Underwater treadmills, which enable a user to exercise without having to put weight on weak or damaged muscles, have rapidly gained popularity in recent years. Many health clubs and rehabilitation clinics now offer at least one.

Underwater treadmills also come in a variety of styles and prices, from simple, portable models that cost about $1,300 to elaborate, in-ground pools with hydraulic floor lifts that cost upwards of $25,000.

The underwater treadmill that Claire Gibbs tried at the Matt Ross Community Center near Kansas City, made by a company called HydroWorx, is one of the fancy ones, designed to be completely accessible for people with disabilities.

Using a waterproof wheelchair, Claire’s father rolled her on to the treadmill platform, which had been raised to the height of the pool edge. At the push of a button, the floor descended like an elevator below the surface of the water, to a depth of about 4 feet (the depth is adjustable, depending on the height of the user). Claire’s father removed the wheelchair, and the girl hung onto the handrails as the rubberized floor beneath her began to move. Cautiously at first, and then more confidently, Claire touched her feet to the treadmill and began walking, heel to toe.

“I’m still bent over, because I have a lot of contractures, but it’s nice to be in a pool and moving, instead of sitting or lying down all the time,” she says.

Claire has used the underwater treadmill several times since that first day, and she says she thinks it’s making her stronger. The experience also has given her something she’s unfamiliar with: blisters on her toes.

Brian Bradford, 49, works out regularly on the AlterG and credits it with eliminating his chronic back and hip pain caused by limb-girdle muscular dystrophy.

The AlterG

The latest, state-of-the-art treadmill, called the AlterG, uses a cushion of air, rather than water or harnesses, to render the user’s body weightless. Designed by the son of a NASA engineer, the AlterG employs technology originally developed for space suits. Since the cheapest model costs about $27,000, few can afford to own one of these, but they are becoming increasingly available at health clubs and rehabilitation clinics around the country.

About 500 AlterGs have been sold since the machine went on the market in 2005, mostly to professional sports teams, hospitals and physical therapy clinics, says company CEO Lars Barfod. Lauren Gibbs tried one at 68’s Inside Sports in Overland Park, Kan., a fitness center owned by former Kansas City Chief football player Will Shields (number 68).

Brian Bradford, 49, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, has been working out on the AlterG at 68’s Inside Sports for five months now. He credits the machine with helping him to lose about 25 pounds, increasing his stamina and, most importantly, eliminating his chronic back and hip pain.

“I’d tried everything,” Bradford says, “and nothing worked like the AlterG.” Painkillers had made him constipated and dopey, he was afraid of falling while exercising on land, and underwater treadmills, with their greater resistance, had left him exhausted.  

Lauren Gibbs was able to step into the AlterG on her own, but Brian needs assistance. He gets a trainer to help get him up from his wheelchair and stand him up in the machine, where he can hang onto the handrails. The trainer then helps position a U-shaped metal frame that locks an inflatable plastic device in place around his waist. Wearing special, rubberized shorts, Brian is zipped into the machine and his weight is calibrated. The AlterG then fills with the amount of air necessary to lift Brian gently off the ground, enabling him to walk with ease, without exhaustion or fear of falling.

“After I was diagnosed [with LGMD], I spent years lying around the house, thinking I couldn’t do anything,” Brian says. “I thought I was going to lay there until I died.” But, after being spurred on by an MDA doctor, Brian got a power chair, a van with hand controls, and a part-time job, all of which helped get him to the point where he was able to access the AlterG and benefit from it.

What makes the AlterG different, says company CEO Barfod, is that it takes weight off without affecting a person’s balance. “Unlike with a harness or in a pool, the brain’s perception of balance is normal” in the AlterG, he says.

“That’s the key reason why people love the product,” Barfod adds. “They feel comfortable and free to move, and can’t fall. That’s another nice thing — if you do have balance problems, you really can’t fall out.”

Since falling is one of Brian’s greatest fears, he really appreciates that aspect of the AlterG. “I am so fortunate,” he says. “It’s changed my life.”

For more information

Warning! For advice about using a treadmill of any sort, or about starting an exercise program in general, always speak with your doctor first. Standard exercise advice may not apply to your particular muscle condition, and in fact could be harmful.

  • Land-based treadmills: For information and tips on buying a land-based treadmill, check out treadmill review sites such as treadmillreview.net or runreviews.com. Be sure to speak with your physical/occupational therapist.
  • Harness systems: Woodwaymakes medical-grade treadmills and harness systems; call (800) 966-3929.
    GlideTrak harness system

    For information about the GlideTrak, a commercial harness system that can be used with an existing land-based treadmill, call (888) 779-7177 and ask for “GlideCycle.” (The company also makes a harness-adapted bicycle.)

  • Underwater treadmills: Endless Poolsoffers a built-in underwater treadmill; call (800) 732-8660.

    Other manufacturers of underwater treadmills include HydroWorx (800-753-9633) and SwimEx (800-877-7946).

    For information about a portable underwater treadmill that can be used in an existing pool or spa, check out Aquabilt or call (888) 282-2782. SwimEx and HydroWorx also sell portable underwater treadmills.

    Some health clubs include use of an underwater treadmill in their membership dues, while others charge extra for its use. Expect to pay about $1 to $2 a minute.

  • Zero-gravity treadmills: The AlterG has been approved by the FDA as a medical device, and its use is covered by some insurance policies. For more information, call (510) 270-5900. To find an AlterG near you, e-mail the company at info@alter-g.com. Per-use costs vary, but are generally similar to underwater treadmills.


VIDEOS: Sisters with SMA work out on hi-tech treadmills

Lauren Gibbs grooves on anti-gravity

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