County developed machine helps maintain cardio

Published on Wed, Oct 21, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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Seniors, do you ever run out of breath climbing stairs? Ever wonder how people your age can still ski while you’re gasping for air just standing in the ski area parking lot? It has to do with your aerobic fitness, specifically, your cardiovascular system. Improving your aerobic fitness means moving your large muscle groups (legs and back); a roadblock for many people because it means spending time walking, biking, in a studio or a pool.

Glacier resident Gary Graham has devised a way to exercise highly specific muscles while the rest of your body can relax – it’s lying down – which means that the small muscles that surround your arteries, for example, can get a real workout and get a six-pack of their own.

Graham’s “shuttle system” exercises the cardiovascular system in ways that have been shown to be of substantial benefit for athletes, in rehabilitating people from injuries and in maintaining cardio fitness in older people.
It’s based on a theory of exercise called plyometrics that emphasizes stretching and then quickly contracting muscles, something that can lead to rapid improvement in muscle tone because it takes advantage of, and at the same time improves, a muscle’s flexibility and “snap.”

A well-known plyometric exercise is jumping rope, where the impact with the ground stretches your calf muscle that is then almost explosively contracted to jump over the rope before it hits your foot. Other common plyometric exercises for athletes might involve jumping off a box onto the floor and then to a high box, or jumping in place but exaggerating your landing into a deep squat.

The idea is to alternately stretch the muscle and contract it in rapid succession, using the built-in flexibility of muscle tissue for added spring much like a slingshot is stretched and then quickly contracts when launching an object. If you don’t stretch it first it doesn’t work as well.

Since these exercises depend on gravity, regular walking provides a moderate amount of stretching and contracting. Operating outside gravity, however, became a concern when people began going into space.

The lack of exercise for limbs is one thing, but the lack of cardiovascular exercise when your heart’s not working hard enough, pumping a weightless fluid (blood) against little or no resistance, was thought to be life threatening in the early days of the space program because of the loss of fitness just before encountering the rigors involved in re-entry and, in those days, splash-down.

Bellingham native and part-time Glacier resident Gary Graham led a team of Boeing engineers assigned to solve this problem, and came up with a novel idea while drinking a bottle of pop.

He noticed that if you hold it upright and move it back and forth not much movement of the liquid occurs, but if you turn it sideways and move it back and forth the liquid sloshes back and forth violently. Basically, he wanted to take the astronauts and shake them up enough to slosh their blood back and forth in order to stress the cardio vascular system.

Graham’s team proposed that this would stress the system in much the same way that gravity does and would therefore maintain a level of fitness. What they found, before Boeing ended the program due to budget cuts, was that the benefits of an oscillating exercise in which a supine body is moved back and forth along a line from head to toe has rapid and dramatic effects, almost like giving your arteries a targeted aerobic exercise without the pain and exhaustion of having to move against gravity to do it.

Graham continued with the idea and 20 years later brought out a horizontal cardiovascular exercise machine called the Shuttle 2000. The reason, Graham said, that the machine works so well for older or injured people is that it provides plyometric, bouncing-type exercise without having to actually jump up and down.

It works so well, however, in providing quickness in muscle response that it actually does increase one’s ability to perform athletic maneuvers, and these days most pro basketball and football teams have a version of Graham’s machine in their locker rooms.

Local physical therapist Alan Finston has one in his G Street office in downtown Blaine.

Not just for astronauts

Graham developed a complex system of elastic cords and adjustable foot pads that allow for a full range of exercise for various muscle groups in his device, offering a way to specifically exercise essential parts of the cardiovascular muscle system without having to pound them as well in jumping against gravity. He also has a range of models, including smaller ones for the home and another for therapists that quickly converts from an examining table into an exercise machine.

He also has a machine that helps seniors avoid falls – “to avoid a fall you need to simulate a fall,” he says, and if you can stand on his platform supported by chains at the four corners, so the thinking goes, then flat floors will be no problem for you.

The principle remains the same no matter what’s being worked on.

What’s interesting is how little effort it takes to get results, because the muscles being exercised benefit even when the movements are done slowly and resistance is light, focused only on the parts that need work and not having to also overcome gravity at the same time.

As the old joke about the farmer and the pig says, “Old pigs don’t fall apart all at once ... you lose a little bacon here and there, maybe a spare rib or two...” Similarly, athletes and older people both will often feel muscle pain or over stress themselves with certain specific motions, such as turning a certain direction or lifting an object off a high shelf.

Graham’s machine is designed to isolate the muscles used in these specific ways and exercise them aerobically, something that has shown to be of great benefit in maintaining fitness and performance levels. In professional sports, better performance equals more money.

For more information contact Whatcom Physical Therapy at 332-8167, or go to Graham’s website at