What do astronauts, professional rodeo cowboys and heart patients have in common?
All have been using the Vasper system – possibly the next big thing in exercise, performance training and rehabilitation.
There are only five locations in the world where the system is in use, and one of those happens to be Wise Regional’s Fit-n-Wise facility in Decatur, where it arrived last October.
“You know how when you lift weights and your muscles feel pumped afterwards?” Susan Rector said. “Since I’ve been using this I feel that way all the time.”
Rector, the director of cardiac rehab at Wise Regional Health System, has decades of experience helping rehabilitate heart patients. Some of these patients are elderly and sick, making many types of exercise and therapy dangerous and off-limits.
“I think this will more or less revolutionize everything we’ve been doing,” she said. “People who weren’t able to exercise safely before will now be able to.”
Thanks to efforts by Jeffrey R. Gladden, MD/FACC, founder and director of the cardiovascular program at Wise Regional, Rector has been able to introduce her heart rehab patients to Vasper. Dr. Gladden first learned of the Vasper system last year while attending a medical conference in California.
He was instantly intrigued.
“It was created by Peter Wasow-ski,” Gladden said, “as a way to treat his own osteoarthritis. But he discovered it had an exceptional training effect with regard to people’s exercise capacity.
“I was blown away by the physiology behind it,” he said. “I began to think how I could apply it to cardiology both in treating cardiac patients and in enhancing mine and other cardiovascular performance.
“Being a cardiologist, I wanted to see how it worked with patients going through cardio rehab and [if it] could enhance their gains in exercise capacity and stamina compared to traditional cardiac rehab.”
The Vasper system is used with a Nustep exercise machine, which resembles the recumbent elliptical machines widely used for exercise and rehab. But it’s the Vasper system that makes the exercise so beneficial, combining several tried-and-true techniques of exercise to augment the benefits and minimize the risk.
A bundle of tubes transports refrigerated water through cuffs bound tightly around the thighs and arms of the user. The compression cuffs restrict venous blood flow.
Restricting blood flow from the muscles during exercise results in increased lactic acid production and helps enhance muscle size and strength. It’s a technique that has been used for years, but the problem was always that too much compression exaggerated muscle damage and caused intense pain.
This machine remedies that by using cold water and cuffs that are are tightened only to a comfortable level. The water flows through the cuff and creates the compression, but at 40 degrees, it also relieves the inflammation and helps eliminate post-exercise muscle soreness.
“Depending on what pressure is selected, you may start to feel the ‘burn’ within a minute or less, especially in the quads,” Rector said. “You trap that lactic acid, and that stimulates a local and systemic anabolic effect. Your pituitary gland creates growth hormone and anabolic hormones to strengthen the muscle in response to the lactic acid – but because of the cool water running through the cuffs it is easier to tolerate the burn.
“Overall, it reduces the inflammation,” Rector continued. “Your body thinks you are producing more lactic acid than you would doing other exercises, because of this concentration effect, but you can’t feel it as much as you would otherwise.
“It can be a real intense workout or gentle enough for a 90-year-old – and because of the cooling you’re not pouring sweat afterwards.”
There are benefits for both the intense and mild exerciser.
Electromagnetic grounding and cooling is used in the foot pedals, to prevent static electricity from being produced while exercising.
“That reduces free radicals in your body that wreak havoc on you from exercise,” Rector said. “Most people report feeling better – more energy. A lot of people report sleeping better.”
Vasper exercise protocols are based on interval training – periods of high intensity, called a sprint, followed by a leisurely recovery period. The machine uses varying lengths of sprints and intensities over a 20-minute workout. The exercise session is then followed by a 10-minute cool-down period spent lying on a chilled table.
“It’s a short burst of high intensity, then you recover, and you go again,” Rector said. “You can boost your cardiovascular fitness better that way than you will by just going along at steady pace. You also burn a lot more calories.”
“The catch-phrase is, it does two hours’ worth of exercise in only 20 minutes,” Dr. Gladden said. “It’s a dramatic effect, and you don’t have to beat yourself up to do it. The common attitude is ‘no pain, no gain’ – but this builds you up without all the pain.”
“You can do this, and then immediately walk into the gym and do a full workout,” Rector said. “And you’ll probably do better in the gym because your growth hormone and anabolic hormones are at a high level … Some of the research found it basically balances your endocrine system and gets all your hormones optimized to their proper levels.”
The system has been used by Navy SEALs, NASA astronauts, Olympic athletes, professional hockey players and locally, by high school athletes, professional rodeo cowboys, Iron Man triathlon competitors, spinal cord injury patients, several types of rehab patients and cardiac patients.
In space, without the constant pull of the earth’s gravity, muscle tissue tends to deteriorate at a rapid rate.
“Now, astronauts train for two to three hours a day while in space to try and keep muscle mass, but they still lose it,” Rector said. “And so they are adapting this for space because the protocol only takes 20 minutes. At some point this will go to the international space station.”
It also does wonders down here on Earth.
“There was one man in his 50s who ran an Iron Man at Kona in Hawaii,” Gladden said. “He wanted to compete in another Iron Man in Arizona just five weeks later, which isn’t a lot of time to recover. He started using the Vasper three days a week. When he competed in the [second] Iron Man he posted a personal record, taking 30 minutes off his best time.”
In return for getting to be one of only a handful of places in the world with Vasper technology, Rector and Gladden have been collecting data, especially on how it affects heart patients.
“If the highest-risk group can rapidly improve and use this safely, it can be used widespread in cardio rehab,” Rector said. “Just from what I’ve seen, I think, especially for someone starting at the very bottom, they will progress much more rapidly here than they would out in the gym.”
“I’ve seen it take people who could barely use walkers who are now able to climbs stairs,” Dr. Gladden said. “We have to wait for the results of the study to tell the whole story, but we are already seeing people make significant gains. It’s helping people reclaim their lives.”
Kim Emery, aquatics manager at Fit-n-Wise, has been using the Vasper for two weeks now. She’s one of the many test subjects taking part in the studies.
“I can tell a huge difference,” Emery said. “I have much more energy. I’m in less pain. I can run up a flight of stairs now. It’s pretty amazing. I love that it’s only 20 minutes.
“It’s like a high-intensity training. You go 30 seconds really hard and then 90 seconds to rest. During the 30 seconds, because I’m not in shape, it’s really hard. But what I like is, I can push myself harder on this than I would out in the gym. I’ve learned what it’s like to work to my capacity, to work hard.”
“She can’t wimp out,” Rector said.
Right now, the Vasper at Fit-n-Wise is being used only by cardiac patients and a few others.
Dr. Gladden expects it to be available for use by the general public sometime in the second quarter of this year, most likely at hospitals, universities, high schools and gyms.
You can even buy one for yourself for about $20,000.
Not a bad price for the next big thing.