A Space-Age Powered Comeback

Wall Street Journal


MADISON, Wis.— Three months after breaking his leg, Jim Leonhard slid himself into a Spandex girdle and, for the sake of a faster return to pro football, prepared to flout gravity.Jets safety Jim Leonhard jogs on an anti-gravity treadmill in Madison, Wis., to speed his recovery from a broken leg.
The Jets' starting strong safety, Leonhard had shattered his right tibia when he collided with a teammate during a Dec. 3 practice, costing him a chance to play in the postseason and the team's defense one of its savviest players. As part of his rehabilitation, he drives himself to the Sport & Spine Clinic here at least three times a week and comes close to running on air.

On the second floor of a modest office building, in the corner of a room covered in rust-colored carpet, stands the device that, Leonhard said, should have him ready to play for the Jets again by June: an anti-gravity treadmill. Designed by two NASA scientists, the machine, called an Alter-G, activates an air-compression chamber to "un-weight" a person, lifting him or her off the treadmill and allowing the user to run or walk without the pounding that such exercise usually would inflict on the legs, hips and joints.

Leonhard, then, can maintain his normal running gait and level of cardiovascular conditioning even while his tibia heals—an advantage that, he said, puts him four weeks ahead of schedule in his rehab


"It's had a huge impact," he said. "I've been running in here. There's no way I can run outside."

After donning the girdle, Leonhard zipped himself into the waist-high chamber, and it inflated with compressed air as if it were a life raft. With his head, arms and upper torso protruding from the chamber, Leonhard seemed a space-age centaur. A control on the treadmill's console allowed him to adjust the air pressure to a percentage of his body weight. As he lowered his body-weight percentage, more air filled the chamber to lift him higher, and he felt less resistance against his feet.

Over two days last week, he worked out on the treadmill three times, alternating between walking and jogging. At one point, David Nissenbaum, the clinic's director, wandered over and asked him, "You OK?"

"Yeah," Leonhard said. "It feels too easy."

Leonhard started integrating sessions on an Alter-G into his rehab five weeks after suffering his injury, using the Jets' machine at the team's training facility in Florham Park, N.J., and the Sport & Spine Clinic's. The Jets are one of just nine NFL teams that own an anti-gravity treadmill. The machine is far more prevalent in the NBA, where 18 franchises—including the Knicks—make it available to their players, and it is becoming more common at physical therapy centers and hospitals, said Lars Barfod, the chief executive officer of Alter-G Inc.

At the NASA Ames Research Center in the late 1980s, doctors Robert Whalen and Alan Hargens developed the technology behind the treadmill's anti-gravity capability in their efforts to counteract astronauts' loss of bone density in space. When Hargens, an orthopedic surgeon and a professor at the University of California, San Diego, made a presentation to his UCSD colleagues about the research, they suggested it could help to rehabilitate patients post-surgery. That marked the first indication, Hargens said, of the technology's broader applications. After Alberto Salazar, the famed distance runner and coach, saw a prototype for the machine, he installed several at Nike's training headquarters in 2006.

Nissenbaum bought the Sport & Spine's Alter-G at a trade show in December 2009 for $31,000. It is one of only five available for public use in Wisconsin. The clinic's clients can either use it through their medical insurance or rent the treadmill in 15-minute increments for $10 or $15. Among those clients are Leonhard, several high-school athletes, and the Madison Ballet Company.

A Wisconsin native, Leonhard lives in Madison during the off-season and has had the luxury of not having to purchase time on the clinic's Alter-G. His health insurance through the Jets covers the cost. Should the NFL's labor impasse lead to a lockout, each of the league's 32 teams would terminate its players' medical coverage, but the Jets, Leonhard said, have agreed to continue paying his rehab expenses even if there is a work stoppage. (A Jets spokesman, citing the tenuous negotiations between the owners and players association, said the team would not comment for this story.)

For Leonhard, 28, progress on the machine has provided optimism in what began as a difficult recovery process. He still sports an ugly pink scar that pencils from his knee to his ankle, the line of demarcation where doctors inserted a titanium rod into his leg. He lost 15 pounds during the first week after his surgery, his appetite so muted and his senses so dulled by painkillers that he stopped taking his prescribed pills. Though he watched game film and showed up at the team's practice facility from time to time, he couldn't bring himself to attend a Jets game until Jan. 23, when they lost the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh.

"It's definitely tough when you get cast to the side," he said. "Business as you know it goes on. Everything moves forward. But you're just kind of there."

Leonhard plans to increase the intensity of his workouts on the Alter-G over the succeeding weeks. "There are mixed results coming back from an injury like this," he said, "but at this point, I'm not concerned about that." In his final session on the treadmill last Wednesday, he calibrated it to 50% of his body weight and completed 2.6 miles in 40 minutes, 25 seconds—his longest stint on it—reaching a top speed of 4.5 mph.

Upon finishing, he sat on a bed and wrapped his lower leg in a cold pack, hoping to squeeze out any potential swelling. There was no pain in the leg, only a more satisfying sensation.

"You feel," he said, "like a real person again.''