The Daily Telegraph
Running on air
The space-age injury saviour
My fall came during a game of netball, and although I didn’t hear a snap of bone or the ping of a tendon, my right leg stopped working immediately. The verdict was that I had strained a ligament, but that it would get better soon. Putting weight on it felt like walking on cooked spaghetti. The next day, my knee was swollen and had seized up. My husband carried me into a walk-in centre (how ironic), and an hour later I left on crutches.
But it wasn’t until five months afterwards that I learnt I’d ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament. It had improved, to a degree, but still kept giving way, so I was sent for an MRI scan.
Telling my knee surgeon, Jonathon Lavelle, of the Fortius Clinic in London, about my fondness for semi-inebriated dancing at weddings while wearing five-inch heels drew a look of horror. Each time, I had been risking causing greater damage and shredding what few ligaments were left holding my knee together.
He booked me in for reconstructive surgery, which entailed removing a 20cm length of hamstring and looping it through my knee. For the next six months, I would need careful rehabilitation – oh, and anti-gravity treatment.
So it was that after three months of physiotherapy and wobbling about on a cross-trainer, I stepped on to an AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill, a machine normally used by elite athletes such as Mo Farah and Gareth Bale to recover from serious injuries. Paula Radcliffe, who bought a £36,000 device, said it was one of the best investments she had ever made. Now, Gordon Ramsay is using one to get over an Achilles tendon problem, Stephen Fry has had a go, and Burnley and Middlesbrough are the only Premier League football teams not to own one.
The premise is simple. Users are zipped into a pair of specialist neoprene shorts and a waist-high airtight bag that encloses the treadmill. The space around your legs fills with air, lifting you up and allowing you to exercise at a fraction of your body weight, while reducing the impact on your joints.
“It’s like being a cork in a bottle of champagne,” says Trevor Donald, managing director of SportsMed Products, the treadmill’s UK distributor, who watches me as I run on one of the machines. “It uses air pressure. The more air pressure you get, the more upward lift you get. The pressure can be 1.1 pounds per square inch, so it’s like roughly going waistdeep into water. You can take someone down from 100 per cent of their body weight to just 20 per cent – the same feeling as walking on the Moon – in 1 per cent increments.”
The treadmill was originally developed by Nasa in the Nineties to create a downward force and allow astronauts to exercise in space to prevent muscle atrophy. But the device was deemed too bulky for space travel and the idea was discarded, until someone redesigned the model, using the air pressure controller to decrease the feeling of gravity, rather than adding to it.
Marathon runners say the treadmill allows them to train longer without risking injury, while those in recovery, including me, can get moving again more quickly.
Now the Nasa-patented technology is being rolled out to rehabilitation centres, NHS wards, private clinics and gyms, to be used with a range of serious conditions, including arthritis and osteoarthritis, spinal injuries and neurological conditions. A video clip of a man who had been in a wheelchair for five years but, with the help of the AlterG treadmill, was able to jog again, has been watched by almost five million people online.
The treadmills are also being used in a bid to reduce the need for hip, knee and ankle replacements.
“While this can’t make that joint any better once you have a degenerative knee, it can strengthen the muscle around the joint,” says Donald. “It can delay surgery by years.”
Overweight or obese patients are able to run without joint pain and to experience what it feels like to move at your target weight, which is a dramatic motivational tool. Only those with untreated deep-vein thrombosis or an unstable fracture are advised to stay off the machines for fear of doing further damage.
Guy Sweetman, a sports therapist at East Devon Sports Therapy and General Injury Clinic, has seen patients in tears using the machine, so overjoyed are they by the feeling of weightlessness on their battered joints and having been offered a way to get fitter.
“Many people who are in pain with arthritis in their knees, ankles and hips stop doing exercise altogether,” says Sweetman. “With this, they can keep moving without aggravating their joints and worsening the condition. It maintains muscle tone, keeps the heart and respiratory system working, and is good psychologically when immobile people tend to get a bit depressed. Coming in here and using the machine gives them a real boost.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that for one of Sweetman’s patients, Brian Boyt, a 71-year-old retired teacher from Devon, using the AlterG was life-changing. Boyt had a cardiac arrest, and had suffered from arthritis in his feet and knees for years. His wife, Cynthia, had also developed ovarian cancer.
“Even though she had this horrible disease, she was more mobile than I was,” he says. Boyt was unable to go out or walk far without severe discomfort. “I felt as though I was holding her back. I needed to be fit to look after her.”
Boyt’s exercise plan started with 15-minute strolls on the treadmill at 20 per cent of his full body weight to build muscle strength and endurance. Today, he manages three miles twice a week at 75 per cent of his weight, a distance that takes him half an hour, and has restored his legs. He is able to go on walking holidays with his wife, who has recovered. The couple recently returned from the Isles of Scilly, where he walked for up to five hours a day.
“We don’t climb mountains, but I can manage uneven surfaces. It has been brilliant. Without it, I don’t want to think where we’d be. I certainly wouldn’t be able to enjoy the lifestyle I have,” he says.
I’ve been on the Anti-Gravity Treadmill for half an hour and, even after 10 months without exercise, there is not a bead of sweat on me. My breath is coming easily and running feels fluid, light and loose. Usually, when I up the pace – to jog for a bus – my leg aches and the knee joint feels slightly unstable. Now, I notice neither. I could be running on air, which, essentially, I am.
It’s a great feeling. But then I’d try anything – even neoprene shorts – to stay off the crutches.
To find an AlterG machine near you, go to alterg.com/product/find-an-alterg
‘People are overjoyed at being able to move without aggravating painful joints’