January 31, 2012
Benjamin wears an orange polo shirt and a gold hoop earring. Zipped into a souped-up treadmill, he’s smiling and walking on his toes. In disbelief, his mother watches. She has five children, four of them, like Benjamin, who’s 12, have special needs. Since birth, Benjamin has suffered from cerebral palsy, which broadly means that he has no muscle control. When he was born, doctors said he could forget about walking, but here he is on a Monday night in Aurora, Ont., barking at his personal trainer to turn up the speed.
“2.2, come on!” shouts Benjamin Williamson, who wears Harry Potter braces on his legs when he’s not fastened into the G-Trainer anti-gravity treadmill, which is currently set to use only 30% of his body weight. The treadmill, which retails for $80,000, allows for 100% body-weight reduction and creates a gravity chamber between Benjamin’s waist and feet. Outside of water, Benjamin has never walked unassisted. Strapped into his 1,000-pound treadmill, the kid says he feels like he can fly.
“Please! 2.2! Go, go, go,” yells Benjamin, stabilized in his pressurized space suit, which was originally designed by NASA. “I know if I keep doing all that I can, things will eventually get better.”
When Benjamin first started working with Ron O’Hare at LifeSpring Physiotherapy, his top speed on the treadmill was 0.4. It’s been a month since his first workout and, after meeting O’Hare twice a week, Benjamin is now ebbing towards a top speed of 3.
“It’s a side of him I’ve never had the opportunity to see,” says Alex Williamson, Benjamin’s mother, who overheard O’Hare describing his new treadmill at the local Running Room and asked him whether the zero-gravity function might benefit someone with special needs. “Benjamin’s supposed to have surgery on his legs in three months, but after seeing this, who knows?”
Williamson’s wheelchair-bound 15-year-old daughter, Emily, also works with O’Hare, who originally purchased the treadmill to train elite runners. Since the treadmill can reduce force of impact, endurance athletes are able to increase their mileage; body-weight reduction is sensitive to 1% of an exerciser’s weight.
“My heart was working with elite athletes, but Benjamin changed everything,” says O’Hare, 41, who is part of the Guelph team that trains Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis, who are set to be Canada’s marathon participants at the 2012 Olympic games. “Now, I want to work with a cerebral palsy specialist and stock my clinic full of these things. If we can provide evidence-based research that anti-gravity treadmills can help kids like Benjamin, how many more people could we treat?”
The maker of the G-Trainer treadmill is Alter G, a company based in Fremont, Calif., that was started in 2005. Steve Basta, the company’s CEO, says that while his machines are used by the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Heat and Boston Red Sox, they’re also found in hospitals and out-patient clinics where specialists provide neurologic retraining and strengthening for senior citizens and the severely obese.
“We strengthen muscles, but also strengthen the entire nervous system to be able to sense where the feet are, how they need to move and to get a sensation through the bottom of the feet,” Basta says. “Walking at lower pressure strengthens the muscles, but also rewires neurological pathways — it helps train the brain to walk effectively.”
Dr. Peter Rosenbaum is the Canada Research Chair in Childhood Disability, and he believes it’s necessary to exercise caution. “What often happens with new ideas is we hear testimonials, and I’ll never argue the wonderfulness of an individual child making progress, but what’s difficult to interpret is what that progress was caused by,” Rosenbaum says. “If you’re the Minister of Health asking me my opinion, we need more research. If you’re this child’s parent, I’d say here’s an opportunity for a young man to practice something, build competence and muscle memory, and that’s very likely to be helpful.”
Inside the physiotherapy clinic, where the music is blasting, Benjamin is walking and his mother’s beaming, it’s easy to become excited about the future. Benjamin has begun keeping track of the kilometres he ticks off with O’Hare, and they mention that, after he completes a marathon, walking across Canada is next. He says that some day, he believes he will walk. In an email, Benjamin described the experience: “The Alter G could make other children with disabilities feel better about themselves. I get more physical activity. I sleep better and eat better. I feel better both physically and emotionally,” he wrote, then ended his email with a quote: “Every day is but the next great adventure.”