Health technology gets moving and grooving


In this second part of our story on health technology, we’ll be looking at some alternative exercise devices and online dieting options.

Office work gets moving

No, we’re not going to recommend you try out the Hawaii Chair (www.hawaiichair.com), though the demonstration videos for the unique exercise/work device seem to be good for exercising your funny bone, at least, as testified to by the recent popularity of the video on YouTube and Ellen DeGeneres’ own trial of the combination hula workout-desk chair device.

Health experts do often tell those looking to lose weight and get in shape that they need to increase their activity levels. (Couch potatoes — that means you!) And endocrinologist Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic decided to test a unique way in which to get the average office worker up and moving all day long.

For more than a decade, Levine and his team have been looking into ways to increase the numbers of calories burned by a given person during their regular daily activities, not just time set aside for exercise. Their research has served to prove the idea of “slow metabolism” as a factor in obesity. The resulting theory: make everyday activities themselves work to improve the body’s metabolism and burn more calories than would normally be used up playing “desk jockey.”

Levine’s “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” (NEAT) concept led him to create a new kind of office for his staff at the Mayo Clinic, what he calls “the office of the future.” Instead of traditional desks, workers use a treadmill and work platform combination that lets them perform traditional desk-based functions of computer use, telephone calls and note-taking but do so while walking. Meetings for small groups are even taken on a circular walking track that rings the treadmill-filled office area.

According to the Mayo Clinic Web site: “There are no desk phones or wall phones. All employees wear mobile phones on their belts along with a Mayo-designed standometer that measures their vertical time and recognizes when they sit down. It also tells them how much more activity they need in order to meet their individual activity goals for the day.

“Walls near the track are essentially magnetic white boards (instead of fabric) for posting ideas and scribbling notes during the moving meetings. Animated art projections are seen on at least three walls to reinforce the concept of activity. Employees can strap on plastic carpet skates, and slide from meeting to meeting for a change of pace.

“All keyboarding, phoning and thinking are done during some form of motion. Coffee and healthy snacks are available nearby, but staff must walk to get them.”

According to Levine, the moving office’s platform “desk” actually costs about half of what a traditional cubicle environment costs, and it can be used with treadmills or stationary bicycles, while standing or with a regular chair.

He says working at the desk with the treadmill set at 1 mph will burn about 100 calories per hour. That’s about 800 extra calories per day burned for a traditional 9-to-5 job, which could translate to 50 pounds of weight lost in a year.

Levine says he recommends new users start slow and try periods of 15 minutes at a time, plus all phone calls taken while moving. He said his NEAT office can be modified to any work need and easily constructed in a short time. He said the cost of the changeover will be paid many times over by the benefits of a healthier staff.

This kind of solution can not only apply to those who work at a desk all day but help you get in some extra exercise while you do your normal e-mail reading and Internet browsing.

The concept has already taken off for some of the world’s gadget-obsessed DIY crowd, who have aimed to strap their laptops to their existing treadmills and otherwise replicate Levine’s treadmill desk concept. Blogger Jay Buster says he has lost 16 pounds in four months using the notion, and his blog at www.treadmill-desk.com offers some tips on how to construct and use such devices.

Those not up to stacking bookcases or strapping their computer peripherals to their treadmill can instead opt for the high-end Steelcase Walkstation (www.steelcase.com), at $4,000. (What price is too high for your health, and much better aesthetics than the DIY route?)

The surfer, the shaker and the (robot) horse they rode in on

If you prefer to keep the traditional separation between your work time and your exercise time, there are still plenty of high-tech solutions for you. One of my favorite places to find — let’s call them “unique” exercise devices is Brookstone, that bastion to all things you didn’t realize you needed until you saw them in the catalog.

In addition to more traditional treadmills, elliptical exercisers, stationary bicycles and rowing machines, Brookstone offers such things as the OSIM iGallop, which aims to replicate the ab-toning, “core” exercise-focused workout of riding a horse, minus the feed, boarding, gear and vet bills.

I can say from personal experience that regular horseback riding will do you a world of good, especially for those “core” muscles and the legs. The iGallop aims to take the health benefits of riding and bring them indoors in a zero-impact workout.

I think this product suffers from some of the same issues as the Hawaii Chair — namely, you look pretty silly (at best) sitting on a faux horse body and having it wiggle underneath you. This is an indoor activity with a home-user price for good reason. But if it suits you, Brookstone is selling the iGallop at half-price currently, down to just $299.

Similarly, those who consider surfing — or semi-simulated surfing — more their game can exercise those core muscles indoors, without a drop of water, with OSIM’s uSurf. This goes along the lines of the balance boards that pro surfers and skateboarders have trained with for decades, but with more power, a remote control and randomized programs that challenge you to maintain your balance and thus give you major workout.

I would bet you’d look at least a little less ridiculous trying this than the Hawaii chair, and it would seem like a great workout for those who are working up to trying surfing for the first time or who are getting back to it after some time away from the sport. It’s a steal at Brookstone now for a third its original price, at just $199.

Recent studies have also indicated that even a body that is essentially at rest will still burn fat and calories if it is being vibrated. For those looking to experiment further with the concept, Brookstone now offers the Power-Plate my5 Vibration Training Machine, on which you can sit, stand or step while it does the booty shaking for you, 15 minutes a day, three days a week.

Celebrity bodies like Madonna, Clint Eastwood and P-Diddy and professional golfers including Colin Montgomerie and Rocco Mediate are using such devices or have endorsed the company and its machines.

With technology invented in the Soviet Union to use for cosmonaut training, the manufacturers claim the device offers benefits beyond simple fitness, extending to improving joint stability, improving stress and hormone levels, increasing bone density and improving recovery from sports injuries. All of this, it says, by activating natural muscle reflexes up to 35 times per second.

The question is: is $4,500 (and up) too much to pay for fitness that doesn’t require you to so much as move? Some of the science behind recent attention to this concept suggests this kind of device could really pay off for the sedentary, those with injuries and the elderly, though perhaps not so much for the young and fit.

If you’re not ready to pony up nearly $5,000 for a device to keep at home, look for vibration exercise machines to pop up in the local gym, spa, sports training facility or physical therapy office in the years to come.

Wii are getting Fit

It’s not a serious workout like you might get from that Hawaii chair (well, in that case, it’s still not so serious…) and the recent evidence seems to indicate that playing sports with the Wii game console has only minimal benefits to health, despite all the reported cases of Wii Tennis elbow and Wii Boxing thumb. But Nintendo is aiming to change all that with the introduction of Wii Fit, slated in the U.S. for late spring or early summer.

One of the most anticipated game releases for the ultra-hot video console and one of the best sellers when it went on sale late last year in Japan, Wii Fit aims to take off where the “training” features of the Wii Sports game left off and actually get you more fit while you interact with your TV.

Exercises will run the gamut from yoga-based balance challenges and guided push-ups to the same kind of virtual sports activities that have made the Wii so popular from the start. Think defending a soccer goal, skiing down a mountain or trying to keep an imaginary hula hoop going.

The wireless Wii Fit balance board is the key to this system, since it will detect whether your body is appropriately balanced for a given exercise and how your movement is shifting. Again, the emphasis here is on those “core” muscles — the abdominals, lower back, etc., which are commonly exercised these days with slow, controlled movements, such as those seen in yoga and Pilates.

You’re not going to stand in front of your TV and pretend to wiggle inside a hula hoop and come off with the suave of James Bond or the elegance of Audrey Hepburn, but these activities — like many of the Wii’s most popular games — have a great interaction factor not just in how you interact with the game but how you interact with friends and family who join you to play.

If you shirk away from aerobics DVDs because you don’t want your significant other giggling at your dance moves, it might even be a little easier exercising with Wii Fit because, well, they’re supposed to be giggling at you. And you at them.

Regardless, the key to this device — game? — being useful as an exercise tool is that you will have fun using it and will continue doing so. It stands a much better chance of that than most of the exercise equipment we buy every year and leave to collect dust in our closets and spare rooms. It could even get the whole family moving. And if you don’t use it, you’ve only wasted about $100 and taken up a slender sliver of your living space.

Dieting across the World Wide Web

In our previous health section, I wrote about the usefulness of online diet calculators and the handheld gadgets and software that keeps them with you at home and on the run.

Extending beyond those calculators are full-blown online diets, complete with online meal plans, online nutritional advise, online exercise recommendations and online support groups.

As with paper-based and word-of-mouth-based diets, there is a huge variety of programs out there. Some are about as beneficial to health as those old cabbage or orange juice diets that I would hope most of use know aren’t considered realistic or healthy.

Others take some pretty well-proven diet programs and just move them online. You can sign up with Weight Watchers, (www.weightwatchers.com), South Beach Diet (www.southbeachdiet.com), the Atkins Diet (www.atkins.com), Jenny Craig (www.jennycraig.com), NutriSystem (www.nutrisystem.com) or any of dozens of celebrity endorsed, big-name diet programs online, not to mention all the smaller companies that have spread through the Web.

What you get with most of these big-brand programs are meal recommendations tailored to your diet goals, exercise recommendations targeted at getting you there, support from staff nutrition and exercise experts when you have a question and access to fellow dieters who can help you with other questions or provide support when needed.

Weight Watchers has made a big deal of the importance of its support groups and continues to do so. But in addition to giving a list of local meetings, Weight Watchers online also offers a huge support structure through its online message boards. Users can sign up for challenges, ask for recipes or offer their own, support each other through rough times and share their triumphs.

That means the support group concept can work even when you’re traveling and can’t make your regular meeting or if you can’t make it out of your house or even think you’re too shy to meet diet buddies in person. This idea works across most of the major diet programs that offer an online presence.

Weight Watchers also offers online memberships that focus less on the meetings and more on your individual plan, asking you to weigh in on your own and keep track of your diet and exercise in an online diary, so you know when you got off track and how, and what’s really working for you.

If you’re a self-motivated type, that could be all you really need.

What Weight Watchers doesn’t have as its major focus is eating from a selection of packaged foods sent out by the company. They do have their foods in major supermarkets, but you’re free to eat whatever you like, homemade or from a restaurant, so long as you account for its contents in your diet plan.

On the other hand, NutriSystem, Jenny Craig and upstart eDiets.com focus — at least out of the blocks — on providing you with exactly what they want you to eat for most or all of your meals. You get set up on a program and they deliver the food to you, freshly prepared and frozen in individual portions, with minimal additional shopping required.

Online aspects of these programs are useful in the respect that you can tailor your meal plans to eliminate foods you don’t like and substitutes ones you do before they’re packaged to be shipped right to your door. Decide you didn’t like that chicken cacciatore last week? Substitute chicken parmesan next month. Not eating meat but still eating fish? Tailor your deliveries that way.

These programs usually offer all the same support offered by the other type of online diet programs: nutritionists and exercise experts to whom you can ask questions, and online support from a larger community. Larger, I would note, because you might not be able to find a local diet buddy to talk you out of that chocolate cake at 2 a.m., but you just might find someone in California who’s hanging out on the site’s message boards and is willing to tell you to put down the fork.

Measuring up to diet success

If you do go the Weight Watchers route or something similar, there’s another tech-friendly item you might want to consider: a kitchen scale. Measuring portions correctly is often cited as a key factor in accurately following a diet.

If you think a single portion of steak looks like something off “The Flintstones,” a kitchen scale will help you cut back to something more like a deck of playing cards. High-tech kitchen scales these days are also very design-conscious and some will even automatically calculate nutritional content on common foods.

While you’re weighing your foods, I’m sure you’re also weighing yourself. And there’s no question but that most of us by now have run across scales that will measure your body fat with a small (imperceptible) electrical pulse through your feet while you’re on the scale.

The good news about these devices is that they’ll give you an idea when those two pounds you gained were a little extra water weight from too much salt on the popcorn and when it really was the fat you packed on with the stick of butter you dumped on top of the salty bowl. If your body fat jumps up, it probably wasn’t from extra water.

Body fat monitoring also lets those aiming for better fitness see when they’re truly getting a benefit from their exercise regimen, since weight gain can come from building muscles — which weigh more than fat — even if you’re simultaneously losing body fat from burning calories. You can also see if your fitness quest is going overboard, taking you into less-healthy regions of low body fat.

Most of today’s scales are relatively accurate when compared to other measures, such as calipers, though the be-all and end-all of body fat measurement is still a body submersion test.

In next month’s To Your Health, we’ll take you past the workout and dinner, and look at some options for better sleep through technology.