Anti-Gravity Treadmills – What can they do?

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Metrifit Athlete Monitoring System

When one mentions the words “anti-gravity treadmill”, the first image that may come to mind is an elaborate machine that appears to belong in the future in some capacity, and indeed NASA developed the differential air pressure technique as a way for astronauts to exercise and maintain conditioning in space. However the technology is in existence and has been for some time – especially in the sporting domain. Many large and successful sporting organisations have invested much time and expenditure in these futuristic machines, with many benefits for athletes becoming apparent. This article will explore the mechanics of the device and what benefits exactly it brings to athletes and athletic performanceJon-Grey-in-Alter-g-edited

The “anti-gravity treadmill” was originally invented by Robert Whalen, a biomechanics researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, in the 1990s. Whalen knew that astronauts on the International Space Station have to exercise for hours each day to combat the loss of bone mass and muscle in microgravity. Whalen’s design, patented in 1992, encloses a treadmill and the astronaut’s lower body in an airtight chamber. Lowering the air pressure inside the chamber pushes the astronaut down, simulating gravity.

Further refinements to the machine followed and have created the device that is used in today’s sporting world. To use it, you put on a pair of tight neoprene shorts. The shorts have a sort of skirt attached, and the skirt is lined with zipper teeth. You step onto the treadmill, inside a hole in its plastic casing, and zipper yourself in so that, from the waist down, you’re encased in an airtight plastic bag. As you stand there, the treadmill measures your weight, and you tell it how intense you want your workout to be. The machine uses “unweighting technology” to make you feel up to 80 percent lighter. The terms “anti-gravity” and “unweighting technology” are enthusiastic descriptions for what the machine actually does, which is inflate the plastic bag around your lower body to lift you off the surface of the treadmill, although a bill of between €30,000 and €60,000 for either of the 3 available models may put some prospective athletes off!!

Antigravity treadmills are becoming increasingly popular in injury prevention and rehabilitation settings, and are being used across many sports. Weight sensors in the treadmill allow the Alter G to be operated at anywhere from 20-100% of the athlete’s body weight. The treadmills are used for rehabilitation from injury and post-surgery to facilitate early weight bearing at a reduced body weight, protecting the healing tissue, while maintaining normal running or walking. These types of treadmills claim to have the following benefits:

  • decrease pain and minimize swelling in the early stages of recovery
  • increase hip, knee, and ankle mobility by encouraging assistive range of motion
  • progressively load the lower extremities to assist with strength, endurance, and neuromuscular re-education
  • increase cardiovascular and muscular endurance in the later recovery stages of recovery
  • initiate weightbearing activities earlier

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Reason alone suggests the anti-gravity treadmill, with its ability to progressively re-introduce weight as an injured patient exercises, is an excellent tool for rehabilitation. Although very few studies have been conducted so far, only positive comments have been made and meanwhile therapists and researchers continue to study the impact on real patients. Indeed, the few studies that have looked at this area have mostly been positive in nature – The idea of athletes’ rehabilitation from Achilles surgery being aided by the treadmill has proven mildly significant and successful in getting athletes back to running properly. Another example is the theory of the treadmills successfully reducing forces on the knee in recovery from injury.

The anti-gravity treadmills aren’t just limited to use in athlete rehabilitation, they are also becoming used more often in training regimes. Sports therapists as well as sports trainers have already incorporated anti-gravity into their sessions. They are being utilised for training, with high mileage athletes incorporating treadmill sessions at reduced body weight. The treadmills can also be utilised for reverse running, incline and decline running, as well as over-speed training (max speed P200 27km/hour). Indeed endurance runners are now beginning to use this tool as a new way of shedding seconds and minutes off their running times.

Due to the recent nature of this type of treadmill, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. Scientists also agree, however, that more research is needed to compare the effectiveness of anti-gravity treadmills against highly established and validated rehab techniques such as deep water running and physical therapy. It may be positive in terms of injury rehabilitation, yet it requires further research in relation to significant, tangible improvements in athletic performance. Regardless of this, it seems as if anti-gravity treadmills are an example of the developments being implemented into modern athletic performance.