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Hydraulic Exercise Gets One Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Patient Moving in the Right Direction

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By Jessica Mendes

Jessica Mendes is a freelance journalist and FM/CFS patient based in Toronto, Canada. She is host and producer of CIUT Radio's Innovations, which promotes critical thinking and creative heresy on a wide range of subjects. She can be heard online every Saturday from 2-3 pm (eastern standard time) on

My body has ached (on both physical and psychic levels) for good exercise for almost 15 years now – the kind that demands focus, vigor and passion. I feel it everywhere, but it’s strongest in my legs, and behind my chest wall: a definite “edge” that is always there, always yearning for life in full throttle. At times it is all consuming, like that gasp for air when you’ve been underwater for too long – gripping my every cell. Waxing and waning with the tides of the moon, this longing has never left me, and though it is terribly lonely, I am grateful for it. It is a desire for purpose, after all – that visceral sense that life matters.

Fibromyalgia is, for me, an enigma; a form of madness, if you will, in the muscles and tendons. Like electrical circuits on overload, firing out in disarray. Or profound ambivalence, bleeding through flesh and clutching bone. Were I a physicist, I might theorize it to be dissonant vital forces, polarizing by nature, creating a carnal paralysis of will or, a physical locking disorder. In other words, Fibromyalgia. If you’ve ever spent a sleepless night strung out from sheer exhaustion, you’ve scratched the surface of what it’s like to live with it, in my experience. You get used to the pain, and its wide range of sensation. The unrelenting lack of elasticity is another matter. Muscles taut and erratically anxious, a stretch is not just a stretch. Without breath, there’s no give at all; take it too far, and you’ll snap.

Its patterns are an utter anomaly, for the most part: it is no doubt a condition that asks you to pay attention to your body’s changing rhythms and needs – a task, I admit, I have often not felt up to. The dictum “get enough rest,” for example, is far too simplistic. I have to be just as careful not to get too much sleep – even an hour’s excess will send my muscles into seizure for the balance of a day. This is particularly telling since, in my case, I also have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The two illnesses combined have taught me that the antidote to tiredness isn’t always more rest. This is where my lust for a good work out comes in.

Here’s my dilemma: since I have FM and CFS, fervent exercise is fraught with hazard. Sprains, tears, spasms; tension that grips with intolerable might – I never know what to expect. It is in this sense that Fibromyalgia has been a growing disability. I was no less than shocked, then, when recently, I stumbled across an opening in my range of choices. It’s called hydraulic resistance training: physical exercise, with equipment, that is non-impacting, and focuses on rehabilitation, toning and metabolism. A system targeted to people of any age and ability, for whom traditional work outs (weight lifting, aerobics) are not an option.

It’s called “circuit training”: set up in a circle facing in, each piece of equipment works a different muscle group. You spend 30 seconds (yes, that’s seconds) on each machine, with recovery time (cardiovascular work) between sets, until you’ve moved around the wheel. “It’s a whole new concept of working out,” says Lesley Smith, manager of Toronto’s Ladies Fit Express. “The amount of force you exert determines the level of resistance you encounter. It adjusts continuously to the ability and need of the person using it, and won’t leave you feeling sore the day after. There’s no strain on the joints, no fighting of gravity. It’s a very different way of working your muscles.”

Indeed. Traditional weight training is prone to injury with over-exertion or improper form. Hydraulic resistance training, on the other hand, appears to help heal injury. Think Iyengar yoga with turbo-power. Iyengar is a discipline that relies on the wisdom of our body’s nature, with a focus on balance and recovery: from injury, illness and trauma. My impression of hydraulic resistance training so far is that it works much the same way, allowing the body, rather than the mind, to set the rhythm and force of a work out. You could call it physical training from the feminine. There’s no competition, no measuring weights, and no mental guesswork involved – just the feel of your own body in a highly adaptable system.

Imagine the sensation of swimming, but on dry land. When I tried the equipment for the first time, I was deeply impressed with a sense of resilience. Like a good pair of shoes with shock absorption: you feel as if you’re barefoot on soil when you’re walking on cement. As I moved with each apparatus, there was no jerking or jolting of my limbs; no stiffening or pinching, no sensation of tearing, trauma or spiking pain. It was like swimming, but without the tightening in my neck or the hassle of chlorine. I was elated. Could this mean I now have a means to strengthen and tone?

Lesley Smith thinks so, and she has reason to. She’s had good feedback from clients with Fibromyalgia, back problems and other challenges. Pat Matheson, a 69-year-old woman with osteoporosis and arthritis, has been working out at her gym since last October. “I have far more energy than I did then, and I don’t have near as much pain in the morning,” she tells me. “I have more bounce in my walk, more strength in my knees. I feel good all over.” Her goal is to get herself off of Hormone Replacement Therapy.

It’s worth noting that hydraulic resistance training is not the same as working with air pressure equipment. It took me a while to figure this out initially, since a surprising number of Toronto’s gyms equate one with the other, including one that is exclusively hydraulic. Completely unaware, I conducted a poll to see how many of Toronto’s gyms had them. Some hadn’t even heard of it; one told me they “didn’t believe in it,” and another informed me that I wouldn’t find hydraulics in this city. The most common response, though, was “oh – you mean air pressure? The equipment you adjust with buttons?” A few asked me if I meant Keiser, a well-known manufacturer of air pressure machines.

It wasn’t until I found Fit Express that I discovered they were two entirely different concepts. “Most people in the industry don’t get how hydraulics work,” says Glen Beckett, their Vice President of Sales based in Mississippi. “They are virtually the same as training in water. You don’t have the impact you encounter in weight training, because the resistance level is equal to the amount of force you are able to exert at every point in the range of motion. The weight is never greater than what you can safely lift. Contrary to pneumatics, which are designed to simulate weight training, but with air resistance.”

Fit Express is the oldest independent manufacturer of adjustable hydraulic resistance equipment in North America, supplying to gyms in Europe, Asia, Mexico, the Middle East, U.S. and Canada. “Adjustable” is key, here, since you’ll also find non-adjustable hydraulic resistance equipment, namely at Curves. Non-adjustable poses problems, says Glen. “You need to provide periodic variance to shock the muscles and nervous system – otherwise, when you reach your maximum speed you will plateau, as your body has adjusted to a certain setting.” This was confirmed for me by another Toronto gym, Oxygen Fitness. “We get a lot of overflow from Curves,” says manager John McCrindle. “People work out there for a couple of months and then they want more, so they come to us.”

If you’ve got arthritis, joint problems or back injuries, however, this isn’t an option. Look for adjustable hydraulics resistance equipment. I predict the industry will soon see a significant growth curve – one catered to the needs of a market untapped. And I, for one, want to be part of it.

Author’s note: For more information about adjustable hydraulic resistance equipment visit

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