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Gaiam's latest exercise tool hopes to be a Step360 to better balance

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Local fitness guru Robert Sherman shows Local Living columnist Vicky Hallett how to do the Step360 workout.

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By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, August 19, 2010

The newest fitness tool coming to a gym near you looks like a tire stolen from an alien automobile. But more important, it resembles the love child of the step and the Bosu, two of the most popular pieces of exercise equipment in recent history.

Even if you've managed to avoid sweating for years, you're probably at least acquainted with the cardio-conducive step platform and the blue squishy domes meant to test your balance. The two concepts are melded in the form of Step360, which fitness company Gaiam recently debuted at a convention in Los Angeles.

It was conceived in 2006, when entrepreneur John Cole was practicing karate at his San Diego dojo, and he wanted to find a more challenging way to practice standing on one leg while kicking. He glued two inner tubes together and topped them with a plank of wood, and the basic idea was launched -- and more effective than he ever imagined. The wobble forces your core muscles to engage, while the surface on top allows users' feet to be level, which mimics the real world.

Gaiam teamed up with Cole because he'd stumbled across the ultimate combo of the familiar and the innovative, says company president Bill Sondheim. Gaiam, which gussied up the concept by developing a sleeker, easier-to-mass-produce device, sees endless potential among consumers, particularly baby boomers.

"The largest demographic is the slightly aging group looking for fresh, new ways to exercise that are safe and not intimidating," Sondheim says.

Fabio Comana, a professor of exercise science at San Diego State University, noticed in research on Step360 that it filled a gap.

"When I was looking at conventional balance-training devices, I saw they were too advanced," says Comana, who is also an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. His progression for students looking to improve their balance had been: solid ground, an Airex pad (made of a foam you sink into) and then a Bosu. "That's a leap of faith," he says, since a curved surface is much more treacherous.

Comana found that, even if people manage to stay on a Bosu without toppling over, their knees have a tendency to buckle when bending. "It doesn't promote good mechanics," he says.

Although Step360 keeps feet stable, in his study comparing prototypes with Bosu units, Comana found participants on both used their muscles equally. In other words, you get the workout of the Bosu without the worries.

So how do you work out on it? For that question, Gaiam turned to Robert Sherman, a nationally recognized fitness guru who runs the group exercise program at the Equinox health club in Tysons Corner. His job was to devise classes that would win over trainers and exercise instructors, who would introduce it to members at their gyms in the next few months.

(That's the first phase of the rollout. Expect infomercials by January, and you'll be seeing Step360 in stores such as Target, Wal-Mart and Dick's Sporting Goods in fall 2011.)

Sherman, of course, adores every inch of it. Notches along the edge allow users to hook in resistance bands and perform a range of strength-training moves, from lateral raises to chest presses. Side hand grips make push-ups pleasant but still not easy. And the top is slightly cushioned, which makes it more comfortable, Sherman says: "Who wants to kneel on a step?"

Two more pluses for the gym setting: Step360 is stackable and fairly lightweight. (The inside is hollow.) But the most critical aspect for Sherman is that you can adjust the difficulty by changing the amount of air in the two chambers. The rule to remember is "more inflation, more stability." So instructors can direct newbies to the most pumped-up units while giving slightly deflated ones to advanced students.

"It's usable by more populations, but it's as challenging as any product I've ever been on," Sherman says.

He proved that by giving me a quick preview of his Step360 programming, which he breaks down as "three-minute routines with six phases of training and zero rest." Each 18-minute series touches on flexibility, strength, balance and explosive power and will leave you breathless, especially if he ends with alternating jumping lunges with a medicine ball. Whew.

Whether Step360 actually has legs, however, is up in the air. Plenty of fitness devices have launched with similar hopes to shape up the masses, only to end up as yard-sale junk. For now, we'll just have to wait, watch and wobble.

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