The Moving Crew

Four Minutes, $14,000 and Thou

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

When I heard that a machine could deliver a complete cardio and strength workout in four minutes a day I, like you, yearned to believe. The device is called the ROM (for "range of motion"), sold by Romfab, of North Hollywood, Calif. It resembles an amalgam of a classic cruiser motorcycle and a Space Age rowing machine, and ostensibly forces users to employ significantly more muscle fibers than they would doing traditional exercise. This translates into higher oxygen demands on the body and increased calorie burn. But a full workout in 240 seconds?

The ROM allegedly moves the body through a wider range of motion than other gear and, by requiring continual pressure, provides resistance throughout each movement -- no recovery moments like those between pedal strokes or bench presses. The premise, at least, is sound: Research has shown the muscle-fiber/oxygen effect and one study concluded that eight minutes of sprint intervals, for example, offer cardio benefit roughly equal to an hour of brisk walking.

One four-minute ROM session, says Romfab, burns 465 calories (40 on the machine and 425 more throughout the rest of the day due to "afterburn," a phenomenon known by fitno-nerds as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC). By comparison, an hour of treadmill walking, ROMiacs assert, burns 415 calories -- 350 on machine, the rest through EPOC. (The EPOC effect is scientifically validated, but some research questions whether EPOC can exceed exercise calorie burn.)

The front of the ROM, for upper-body work, has a long-backed seat, footpads and moving handlebars; the back, for leg and butt work, looks like an elliptical-StairMaster mix. The manufacturer recommends four minutes on the front one day, four on the back the next, repeating for life. Retail price: $14,615 (!). That's about the cost of 225 hours of personal training -- or a year of tuition at a fine in-state university.

But cheaper access exists: I went to ROM Works, a studio in Catonsville, Md., that charges $50 a month for unlimited use. Owner Ron Price, a strapping 62, credits the device with saving his life after a heart attack 15 years ago.

When I tried the ROM, it performed as advertised, providing resistance throughout full strokes and mandating a broad range of motion. I boosted my effort steadily, charging hard in the final 30 seconds. I finished panting and sweating a bit, but nothing like after my normal intense workouts.

I had similar results on the back of the device, which provides a 36-inch step (twice that of most step machines). On both front and back, harder pushing results in tougher resistance. "It's impossible to overpower this machine," Price says.

Conrad Earnest, director of human performance at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, calls ROM's marketing misleading. While he acknowledges the physiological effects behind the design, he says independent confirmation of the machine's benefits is lacking.

Happily, there are less expensive ways to make your workouts time-efficient (assuming you have a baseline of fitness): Add to your cardio work four 30-second sprint intervals, each followed by 90 seconds of rest. Do this twice a week. Slow down your strength training to ensure resistance as you lower the weight, maximizing the benefit of each repetition.

Join us (for at least four minutes) for our fitness chat today, 11:30 a.m. at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ .

-- John Briley


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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