I know I should exercise regularly, but I’m congenitally lazy and am ingenious at coming up with excuses. There’s an exercise machine that sounds like the end of all excuses, a dream come true. You’ve probably seen the ads in various magazines. The ROM Machine: “Exercise in Exactly 4 Minutes per Day.” It claims that you can get the same benefit, at home, from 4 minutes a day on the ROM as you can from 20 to 45 minutes aerobic exercise plus 45 minutes weight training plus 20 minutes stretching at the gym. It allegedly balances blood sugar and repairs bad backs. It is for everyone from age 10 to over 100.

Does this sound too good to be true? That’s usually a clue that it is too good to be true. I was skeptical and I sent in for the company’s free DVD. There were more clues in the DVD. They had testimonials from 2 chiropractors, several trainers, and lots of satisfied users, but they didn’t have recommendations from a single medical doctor or scientist. In fact, they mentioned a couple of doctors who disputed their claims, including one cardiologist who told his patient that kind of strenuous exercise could kill him. To prove you could get a good workout from the machine, they put people on it, got them to huff and puff and sweat a lot, and then got them to say, “That was a real workout!”

They said Tony Robbins uses the machines – but he also exercises 1 ½ hours a day (down from his previous 3). They said Tom Cruise and John Travolta bought the machines. That’s not much of a recommendation. Those guys also bought Scientology’s stories about Xenu and Thetan levels.

The machine looks like a futuristic mechanical octopus, with parts going every which way. It weighs 405 pounds and requires 5 by 11 feet of floor space. It costs $14,615.00. They explain that it is still the cheapest way to exercise because of all the time it saves. You use the “rowing machine” end of the machine for 4 minutes one day and the “stair-stepper” end of the machine for 4 minutes the next day, allowing 48 hours for each muscle group to recover. There is a flywheel that automatically adapts resistance to any user. “ROM” stands for range of motion, and this machine really does put a lot of muscles through a large range of motion while simultaneously providing anaerobic muscle-building and aerobic exercise.

I watched the demonstrations on the DVD and got cold chills. They are recommending that anyone, even a frail 100 year old, should get on these torture devices and stress themselves to the max. It can’t be good to stretch muscles that way if they aren’t used to stretching. That kind of intense aerobic plus anaerobic exercise sounds like a recipe for a heart attack. And just watching the lower extremity exercises made my knees cringe. They require stepping up about 3 feet, bending knees into configurations that put the joints at tremendous mechanical disadvantage. They look like they were designed to create knee replacement customers. Orthopedic surgeons tell patients with knee problems to build up the supporting muscles by straight leg raising exercises and other exercises with restricted range of motion.

There’s often a small truth behind a big claim. There are studies showing benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). The package the company sent me with the DVD included reprints of 3 studies.

The first is a Canadian study that didn’t use the ROM machine, and it didn’t use the 4 minute continuous exercise protocol. It started with 30 minutes of continuous milder exercise, progressing to short (15 to 90 second) bouts of intense exercise interspersed with short rest periods. It showed that the HIIT group burned more calories than the control group, presumably because muscle metabolism was raised to higher levels and continued to burn fat after the exercise period. Interesting, perhaps, but not directly applicable to the ROM machine or its 4-minute protocol.

The second study, from Japan, showed more improvement in VO2max (an indicator of aerobic capacity) with HIIT than with endurance training. Instead of 4 minutes on the ROM, this protocol involved a stationary bicycle, a 10 minute warm-up period, and 20 second bouts of exercise with 10 second rests between bouts. Again, interesting but not applicable to either the ROM machine or the 4 minute exercise protocol.

The third study was done with ROM machines in 1995 at USC and was reported directly to the company. I found a webpage quoting the author of that study:

The study was NOT a published research study and I would never recommend the ROM for just 4 minutes, as compared to a 30 min aerobic workout. ALL I showed for them was that VERY unfit subjects can increase their aerobic capacity by working 5 days/week on the Rom for 4 min, but these were VERY unfit subjects.

He sounded a bit miffed.

These studies can be found on the company’s website, along with a couple more studies that are equally unimpressive. Readers of this blog will have no trouble seeing that none of these studies support the advertising claims.

I consulted experts in several disciplines. The consensus was that 4 minutes’ exercise is better than none but that the ROM provides a complete workout only if you make up your own definition of complete workout. The injuries and heart attacks it might cause must be weighed against any good it might do. And its price is way out of line with manufacturing costs. You might want to buy it as a status symbol or a work of modern art, but if you want an effective exercise program you should probably spend your $14,615.00 elsewhere.

It annoys me that these questionable ads are appearing in reputable science magazines like Scientific American. I’ll write more about that next week.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.