How Fairview Is Speeding Up Patient Recovery With Anti-Gravity Treadmills
As the body ages, joint deterioration and lower body injuries become more commonplace for active runners. Recovery times can last from weeks to years depending on the severity. But at Fairview Health Services, cutting edge technology is shaving weeks off the time it takes to get runners back on their feet.
Through the use of Fairview’s anti-gravity treadmill, Shannon Braun from Apple Valley was able to reclaim her stride in a significantly shorter period.
For most of her life, Braun had been a cross-country and long distance runner. “I ran in high school. I ran divisional in college. I ran marathons after all of that,” she said. “A lot of times I’d run 70 miles a week.”
Over time, that pressure built up until Braun’s doctor required she have her posterior tibial tendon reconstructed. Both feet went under the scalpel, which meant Braun had to completely relearn how to walk.
Twenty-two weeks later, Braun was seeing some of her mobility return and, as a next step in her rehabilitation, Fairview staff zipped her into its anti-gravity treadmill in Burnsville. The machine, designed from NASA technology, essentially inflates an airtight chamber attached around the waist to lift one’s lower body and create a somewhat buoyant effect. As more air blows into the chamber, the patient’s lower body becomes lighter.
Altogether, an anti-gravity treadmill can drop the weight of a person’s lower half by as much as 80 percent. (On a planetary scale, this sensation would come closest to resembling a walk on Earth’s moon where a 200-pound individual would see their weight dip to about 33 pounds.)
With months to go in her rehab, Braun said the “drop” in her body weight allowed her to start jogging again. “I was gaining a lot of the muscle back and getting used to the motion,” she said. “Eventually I was less fearful to go out and actually run after I’d used [the anti-gravity treadmill].”
The machines are primarily reserved for patients suffering from ankle, knee, hip or lower back pain. Anti-gravity treadmills have even been used to tackle obesity, particularly among contestants on NBC’s weight loss competition show The Biggest Loser.
Furthermore, some of the machine’s first adopters were top sports teams, including the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards.
Fairview, which operates 37 clinics throughout the Twin Cities area, currently has four anti-gravity treadmills in operation. Outside of its Burnsville facility, the other three machines are located in Edina, Blaine and at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
According to Jeff Vrudny, director of rehabilitation at Fairview’s Institute for Athletic Medicine, each machine cost about $30,000 when purchased back in 2009.
In his experience, Vrudny has found the precision of the machines to be helpful with patient care. “Some physicians will request 50 percent weight bearing for the next four weeks, so we can dial the anti-gravity treadmill to specifically meet patient needs and doctor’s orders,” he said.
Vrudny even sees benefits in using the machine over other options such as underwater aerobic exercises. “One of the advantages of using this versus being in a pool,” he said, “is when you’re underwater the water is resisting you. But with an anti-gravity treadmill there is no water and it’s more like you are on land, so you can exercise in your normal pattern with a similar buoyant effect.”
To date, scientists have yet to define just how beneficial an anti-gravity treadmill can be; however, that hasn’t stopped workout enthusiasts from strapping into the next-generation cardio machine.
“I have a lot of friends in the running community that use anti-gravity treadmills just to train,” said Braun. “It’s a way to get a really good cardio workout without that pounding that can lead to injuries.”
Fairview has even opened their anti-gravity treadmill to the general public. Interested individuals can pay either $1 per minute or buy a membership that ranges from $100 to $150 per month depending on the number of sessions they’d prefer.
“I would say in a given week, probably about 50 people use the machine,” Vrudny said, noting that about a dozen of those are not patients but athletically inclined or curious members of the public.
“For the patients, it’s a pain-free way to have a normal, functional activity that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have,” Vrudney added. “For everyone else, it’s a great thing that you can still get your cardio workout without that tissue breakdown.”