Are antigravity treadmills effective for injury rehabilitation?
Antigravity treadmills, costly exercise equipment that supports the exerciser's body weight, may not provide benefit.
Antigravity treadmills are becoming increasingly popular in injury prevention and rehabilitation settings. While there is evidence supporting therapeutic benefits from using these treadmills, there are still many gaps in the research, and each facility must assess its own needs and resources to assess cost versus benefit. Since our original article posted in 2011, there have been a few changes. In this revised article, we have compiled the most current evidence-based information regarding anti-gravity treadmill use for injury prevention and rehabilitation.
Proponents of antigravity treadmills assert that a low-gravity environment such as a treadmill that supports body weight is a highly effective way to rehabilitate certain types of injuries (musculoskeletal injury prevention and rehabilitation, stroke rehabilitation, fall prevention, and increased mobilization for obese patients). They claim that reducing body weight allows patients to develop good habits and condition their muscles while their bodies are still healing. Supporters also argue that the antigravity treadmill is as comfortable as water training (which requires a pool) but offers more realistic support of the lower limbs in their free-swing phase, allowing the legs to swing more naturally than they would in water.
What We Know
In 2005, a NASA engineer developed a low-gravity treadmill design for back and lower-body injury rehabilitation. The treadmill applies air pressure to a patient’s lower body in order to unload weight and reduce the stress placed on the lower body during rehabilitation.
Currently, hospitals, professional sports teams, physical-therapy clinics, the U.S. military, NASA, and various other facilities use anti-gravity treadmills. However, they are extremely costly and range from $29,400 to $75,000 per treadmill.
Subject matter experts now agree that antigravity treadmills do reduce impact in the lower extremity bones and joints during rehabilitation. Research also suggests that as long as the user maintains high stride frequency, there is a positive effect on cardiovascular fitness, although not as high as when running or walking under 100% gravity.
Scientists also agree, however, that more research is needed to compare the effectiveness of antigravity treadmills against highly established and validated rehab techniques such as deep water running and physical therapy.
Debrief (Military Relevance)
Antigravity treadmills offer a reduced space requirement as compared to a pool. However, most bases already have pools, which have been proven to be effective for rehabilitation from injury and are more cost efficient. On the other hand, if access to a pool for rehabilitation purposes is problematic, then a cost benefit analysis should include that information to help a facility determine the advantages of purchasing an antigravity treadmill.