A Core Workout -- or Just Horsing Around?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

We see horseback riding as a leisure -- not fitness -- activity. So when we heard about an electronic equine by the name of Joba, purported to boost core strength via regular "riding," we thought the claims must be a load of, well, equine output. But obligated to patrol the barbed wire of the fitness frontier for you, our valued exercise pardners, we saddled up for a test ride.

The Joba looks more like a late-model motorcycle seat mounted to the base of an exercise cycle than a horseback. (Invented in Japan, the Joba serves as the basis of several devices sold in the United States; we tried a Panasonic Core Trainer.) Users sit as they would on a live steed, feet in plastic stirrups, holding a handle where the reins would be. Direction and speed of saddle movement are controlled via a small lighted control panel.

The premise? By jostling back and forth, side to side and in lurching ovals, you instinctively engage your core and thigh muscles (to maintain balance) and burn a few calories in the effort (about 200 an hour), while improving posture -- all without the effort of a sit-up or a Pilates session.

The Joba purportedly works the back, abdominal, quadriceps, gluteus and thigh muscles, with "modest" aerobic benefit. Marketers cite studies showing strength gains after 20 sessions, along with improvements in glucose uptake, an indication of aerobic effect and a key marker in diabetics. The devices are creeping into gyms and are available for home use, with prices ranging from around $750 to $2,000.

A Japanese doctor thought up the Joba as a physical therapy aid, not a Swedish weight-loss belt for caballeros. During a trip to Norway, he saw therapists there using horseback riding to help rehabilitate injured patients.

I plugged in a loaner unit in my living room (blinds safely drawn), climbed on and hit the "manual control" button. The Core Trainer rocked me around with the uncertain syncopation of an arthritic donkey. I boosted the speed, and the trainer gyrated with a modest urgency that said, "Now hold on, city slicker. Who you callin' arthritic?"

But aside from some subtle neuromuscular adjustments to ensure I stayed in good posture, riding the bronco demanded little physical exertion. (Full disclosure: I have a fairly strong core; the Joba might have more noticeable impact on the less fit.)

I toured the other settings -- buttons labeled "Forward Tilt WAIST" "Backward Tilt HIPS" and "Side to Side WORKOUT" -- with similar results: During bouncier moments, I engaged my thigh muscles to keep steady and occasionally had to lean forward or back, but the e-nimal (har!) brought me closer to motion sickness than improved fitness. Memo to Panasonic: This would be more fun with settings like "Canyon JUMP" or "Uh Oh BEAR".

After 15 minutes (my model's preset time limit), I eased into the virtual corral and hopped off.

I wondered if this wasn't one of those stealth workouts, like the first big hike of the season, where you feel fine immediately afterward but can barely move the next day. Alas, the morning after I felt no soreness or muscle fatigue.

You might not want to hear it, but for efficient, effective core exercise, we still endorse standard-bearing crunches, planks, bridges, push-ups and the like.

Or you could come to my house and help me carry a horse out to pasture. ยท

-- John Briley

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