Chi Toes 

A while ago at the fairgrounds, I participated in a demonstration of something called a Chi machine. It wriggled my feet back and forth on a little pedestal and it was the oddest sensation. The guy selling them said using it would do lots of energy-building things that I can't even remember. But, what I do remember is that he said 15 minutes on the Chi machine was the equivalent of 90 minutes of exercise. I didn't buy one because it was really expensive and looked cheesy. Besides, I thought he was more full of crap than the livestock barn next door. But I've always wondered how true that exercise claim really was, do you know?

—Jorge

Ninety minutes of exercise in only 15 minutes sounds too good to be true—unless his calculation is in dog minutes. Could this really be the biggest breakthrough in timesaving since breakfast bars, no-fault divorce and plagiarism? I've always dreaded exercise myself and have long been searching for something that would do all the work for me. Just my luck, this Chi machine comes out when I just spent all my IRA money on a microwave treadmill.

Chi (pronounced chee) machines are produced by many different manufacturers but are all essentially of the same design. Inside a heavy plastic housing, a motor creates a rhythmic, side-to-side motion for a set of ankle rests mounted on top. By lying on your back, placing your legs into the cradles and turning on the power, you are rocked back and forth as your upper body undulates and flops around. Most designs have a 15-minute timer that automatically shuts the unit off, at which time you experience the "Chi rush," a sensation that can be compared, most accurately, to the moment your quarter runs out on a Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed.

As for the alleged benefits of this device, there are more unproven statements here than you'd find in a pre-war intelligence briefing. A small sampling of Chi machine claims: eliminates memory loss, stimulates immune globulin production for disease resistance, increases the height of teenagers, amplifies creation of spinal bone marrow blood cells to treat anemia, and oxidizes fats and cholesterol to reduce weight. My favorite, though admittedly unfair, example is a regrettable Chinese-to-English translation stating: "Cardiovascular Disease Patients' Good News: Life Guaranteed." Why, that really is good news.

Dr. Shizuo Inoue, an early Japanese proponent of oxygen-efficient aerobic exercise, invented the Chi machine. He named it for the Chinese term describing the universal life force and says the oscillating movement of goldfish inspired the pulsating motion. Interestingly, Dr. Inoue claims to have resuscitated a dying man on a train platform by simply lifting and rocking his legs side-to-side for about 30 minutes. Is it just me, or would you also question the judgment of a doctor who'd rather try out his new marionette dance than call an ambulance?

Although not much research has been done on Chi machines, one set of small Australian clinical trials (funded by the manufacturer) found positive results for patients with leg swelling. The condition that they studied, lymphedema, commonly occurs after lymph nodes are removed following abdominal cancer surgery. Researchers found that leg elevation plus the passive exercise of the rocking motion contributed to lymphatic drainage and fluid loss better than elevation alone. These lonely studies are the entire body of medical evidence. Shocking to hear, I'm sure, but I found no published verification of the super-concentrated exercise claim.

Proven benefits or not, I must admit that the Chi machine is very relaxing. My experience is not uncommon; hundreds of testimonials can be found, though many include descriptions of dubious cures of any number of conditions. I can, however, envision how attaching oneself to this passive exerciser may improve joint mobility in a limited fashion (once you get past the unsettling sound of your sloshing stomach contents). The sensation of an energy rush occurring at the abrupt halt of rocking is, I now believe, a bizarre combination of complete blood loss from your legs mixed with a flashback to a Disney teacup ride.

Jorge, your instincts were right when you didn't believe the salesman's claims, but you might enjoy a Chi machine if you can afford the price. Three to four hundred dollars is a lot to pay for some passive exercise, but I've paid that much for a gym membership that I was equally passive about.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send humorous translations and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).

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