I am best known for my investigations into paranormal topics such as ghosts, monsters, crop circles and so forth. But my skeptical antennae start to tingle at any extraordinary claim. So it was when I came across magazine ads touting the genius of the “revolutionary” ROM (Range of Motion) machine. The ROM, which appears in ads in Scientific American, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Esquire and Time, is “an extraordinary new machine engineered precisely for the new understanding of the human body” and designed by “an internationally known artist and inventor” named John Pitre (who on his website refers to himself as a “modern-day da Vinci”).The ROM machine should only be used for exactly four minutes per workout, according to the ads. During those 240 seconds, you’ll be getting the equivalent of 20 to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise, 45 minutes of weight training and 15 to 20 minutes of stretching—all at the same time! It all sounds too good to be true. Does “the new understanding of the human body” really allow the ROM to condense the benefits of nearly two hours of aerobic exercise, stretching and weight training into exactly four minutes? I decided to investigate. I began by digging up as much information as I could on the ROM. I called the company’s toll-free number and requested a promotional video that tells me Tony Robbins, Tom Cruise and John Travolta use the ROM (perhaps Scientologists get a discount), as does Axl Rose. All these people are, of course, rich and famous, which explains how they can afford the ROM’s $14,615 price tag (that does include shipping). You’d expect such a revolutionary exercise device that’s been around for 20 years to have at least one published study or research report to back up its amazing claims. In fact, the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting consumers against ineffective fitness products, put the ROM to the test in 1999 and concluded that the manufacturer’s various claims were simply not true.The ROM literature counters with: “Since 1990, the biggest marketing problem we have had is that almost all so-called ‘exercise experts,’ who know nothing about our ROM machine and have never tried a four-minute ROM workout, will happily declare that a four-minute complete workout is absolutely impossible and that it flies in the face of everything they believe in and have learned. The same ‘experts’ become immediate believers after only a single four-minute ROM workout.” Critics and skeptics (such as myself) were invariably rejected if they hadn’t actually tried the machine. Clearly all the experts and scientific studies in the world could be dismissed with a wave of a flabby arm unless they’d tried the damn thing. But $14,615 is out of my price range. There is another option: a franchise called Quick Gym, which offers the ROM machines. I live on the Westside and, as luck would have it, there’s a Quick Gym franchise across from Cottonwood Mall. But I couldn’t just walk in and announce I was doing an investigation into dubious claims. I needed a confederate for some undercover work, someone to go in with me to scope things out and watch my back if things got hairy.Over coffee my friend Dan Harrod and I planned our backstory: We would present ourselves as roommates who were trying out nearby gyms.There were three ROM machines ready to go inside Quick Gym. I’d never seen $45,000 worth of exercise equipment in so small a space. I spoke to the Quick Gym representative behind the round, white desk, a pleasant woman whose badge and introduction announced she was “Dr. Edwards” (though I later determined she was not in fact a medical doctor working as a gym receptionist by checking with the New Mexico Medical Board). I asked about the credentials of the ROM’s designer, Mr. Pitre. She pointed to a large book of art on display atop a nearby table. I flipped through it, looking at colorful New Age paintings of leaping dolphins, celestial events and demure nudes in forests. “I understand he’s an artist,” I said to “Dr.” Edwards, “but I’m not sure that qualifies him to create an exercise machine. My uncle is an artist, but that doesn’t mean he can design a revolutionary exercise machine.” Edwards sort of nodded and said Pitre had other qualifications, but she didn’t offer any or even seem familiar with what they might be. We both agreed that regardless of Pitre’s credentials in designing exercise machines, either the ROM worked as promised or it didn’t. I signed a release, did a few quick stretches and prepared to be amazed. The machine itself has two exercises, a rowing machine on the front and a stair-stepper on the back. It is sleek and stylish, with a resistance chain under polished chrome and black enamel. You’re supposed to do each exercise for four minutes, so eight minutes total. I started off with the seated, upper-body rowing workout. Four minutes later, my muscles got a bit of a workout, though if I’d done four minutes of push-ups or jogging, I’d have felt just as exercised, if not more so. Dan asked some questions and took a few photos as I began the stair-stepper. It was more difficult and required some deep knee bends. In both exercises, a red light timer counts down the seconds while another measures the gradually increasing resistance. At the end, I climbed off the machine and accepted the small cup of lukewarm water handed to me. I picked up some brochures and we left. Our undercover investigation was not terribly interesting or dramatic, but it did get results. Unlike critics who have not spent eight minutes getting the most fantastic exercise known to mankind, I am now qualified to pass judgment on the ROM, and my judgment is that it’s a load of bullshit. I jog regularly, and know for a fact that I didn’t get anywhere near 45 minutes’ worth of aerobic exercise in the Quick Gym—nor 45 minutes of weight training, nor 20 minutes of stretching. It seems that the ROM is little more than a stylish, glorified exercise machine not unlike any other costing one-tenth the price. You’re paying for pretension and packaging instead of proven efficacy. Then again, you’re also paying for a masterpiece by a modern-day da Vinci. Armed with the scientific evidence I’d found about the ROM, as well as my firsthand experience, I wrote up and sent the results of my investigation to the Better Business Bureau and the New Mexico Attorney General, along with a copy of the Quick Gym’s business card. My job was simply to investigate the claims about the exercise machine, not to shut down anyone’s business. But there was clearly some false advertising going on, and I wanted authorities to be aware of it. Weeks passed. Other than a vaguely threatening e-mail from Alf Temme, the ROM’s main salesman, I heard nothing more about it. But about a month later, I drove by the Quick Gym and noticed there was a sign saying the business had closed; within a week the sign came down as well. Maybe it shut down because of the economy; maybe it shut down because of customer complaints. I have no idea, but the Westside location was only one of six Albuquerque locations; I called the other numbers and all of them had been disconnected.
Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and Discovery News, and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, available at his website: RadfordBooks.com.The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.