IT occurs to me, as I hang from my ankles in a contraption designed to fully invert the human body, how infrequently in my life I have actually turned myself completely upside down.
Barring handstands as a child and the occasional theme park experience, the only other times I’ve found my feet above my head are during one forgettable trapeze lesson and when I’ve flirted with certain types of yoga.
But right now I wish I had been more diligent in upending myself over the years, if only so that I would be more accustomed to the head-rush that is making it impossible for me to talk as I try the latest therapy said to improve your health and fitness.
I am here and upturned because it is currently thought to be the fastest route to better posture and a clearer, better functioning mind. It can supposedly give you a youthful glow and, if you put a bit of effort into your inversion time, can leave you looking more toned and healthy.
Not since the 1980s when Richard Gere sparked a trend for anti-gravity boots when he was seen using a pair to train while hanging upside down from a doorframe have so many wanted to suspend themselves in bat fashion for the good of their health.
It was a short-lived fad the first time around mainly because the ankles and feet were locked in place. Many complained of the Houdini-type escape attempts (and resulting injuries) to return themselves to the upright position and the novelty soon wore off.
Now, though, more refined tipping-up tables and therapies allow you to adapt more gradually to things down under and the appeal is soaring. Celebrities love it and are hanging head down whenever they can, whether it’s in the relative comfort of a silk anti-gravity yoga sling (like Gwyneth Paltrow) or using a variety of more high-tech equipment.
Dan Brown, the best-selling author of the Da Vinci code says he still hangs in Gere-style anti-gravity boots to help him overcome writers’ block. But it was inversion therapy on a table with ankle straps similar to the one that I am using, that the12-time Emmy winner Rosie O’Donnell claims got her through a period of depression after other treatments had failed. And Eva Mendes, pictured right, says she often lies upside down on a high- tech inversion table before a photo shoot because she finds it boosts her complexion.
A few minutes in and I can’t see myself reaching any of the aforementioned goals, but I am hopeful. Regulars say once you make it part of your daily routine it improves blood flow to the brain, thereby boosting concentration, creativity and memory. Because of the increased circulation to the head, it is believed to make it easier for blood to run down the capillaries in the scalp, encouraging hair growth.
Ron Christian, the ergonomics consultant who secured me into the Teeter Inversion table, one of the best-selling makes, by clicking my ankles into locked braces and giving me a gentle push towards the floor says it is this sudden rush of blood that “causes most discomfort and takes most getting used to”.
Another device I tried — the BacTrac — tipped me forward and had less of an adverse effect. Christian uses an inversion table himself and admits “they are not for everyone as some people can’t get used to the disorientation and just don’t like the way it makes them feel”.
Others get hooked on hanging and are no doubt buoyed by the surprising amount of research on what initially seems a slightly flaky approach to wellness. Most of it points to the fact that being upside down is helpful to people with back problems who spend their days slumped at a desk or in a car.
As the team of osteopaths and physiotherapists at the Riverview Clinics in Limerick and Cork put it: “Inversion therapy gently stretches the spine and decompresses the discs. Its benefits include relief from back pain and stress, improved circulation and better core strength and flexibility”.
A six-year study by the US Army Physical Fitness School concluded that recruits who regularly used inversion therapy suffered fewer joint-related injuries, less back muscle pain and faster healing from injuries. As a result, it is now recommended as part of physical training.
A 2012 study by researchers at the Regional Neurosciences Centre in Newcastle found inversion tables reduced the need for operations among people with sciatica and back pain to 23% compared with patients who hadn’t spent time upturned. Overall, patients who practise the approach are around 70.5% less likely to need a back operation the long term, the doctors found.
Experts are cautious about recommending it for everyone with back pain. “It’s something that comes in and out of fashion and the last time inversion boots were in vogue in the 1990s we noticed a sharp rise in unusual injuries that were very specific to approach,” says physiotherapist Sammy Margo.
“People were over-pulling discs that had become badly compressed and they were being stretched and pulled in the wrong direction. They ended up with a more severe problem than they first had in many cases. It’s fair to say that we are all probably even more sedentary then than we were 25 years ago, so our backs are probably in a worse state. And an excessive amount of hanging is not a good thing.”
It’s not good either for anyone who is pregnant, has high or low blood pressure or for the elderly who have fewer balance receptors.
That’s not to say the rest of us shouldn’t spend some time at least partially upside down. There are simple moves we can do at home to iron out our posture. Lying on a table or kitchen surface and allowing your body to hang down is a good one. As is hanging by your fingertips from a door frame. And while you are hanging, try moving and stretching. Christian has me doing side-turns on the Teeter which are something of a challenge given the gravitational pull.
One of the reasons anti-gravity yoga has proven such a hit in gyms is because exercises are so much more challenging when you are suspended mid-air. Some trainers think one inverted sit-up in which you try to touch your feet when you are upside down is worth ten ordinary crunches on the ground. When you are inverted, you have to raise the head, which is heavy, and really use your core strength to perform moves.
Elite cyclists, footballers and athletes are increasingly using inversion tables for core-strengthening routines and the latest fitness incarnation from the US are ‘Rope Wall Yoga’ and ‘Off The Wall Yoga’ in which participants hang upside down off a modified climbing wall while wearing a set of ropes or a harness. With hips and buttocks secured by the straps, an instructor guides you through a series of poses that let the spine relax and hang down to the floor. Expect to see them here later this year.
I can see how the exercises might work and my spine certainly felt elongated by the time I was tipped back up. Having emerged with the complexion of a boiled red cabbage, I remain to be convinced of its ability to rejuvenate the appearance of your skin but I am prepared give it another go.
I reckon it’s a trend that will be hanging around for some time.
www.Gymequipmentireland.ie for Teeter tables and gravitational boots; www.antigravityyoga.ie ; www.riverviewclinic.ie
* AntiGravity yoga was developed by Christopher Harrison who found traditional yoga moves hard on his injured wrists so performed them in 9ft of fabric suspended from the ceiling.
* Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and Pink are all fans of upside down yoga.
* A red face when you hang upside down in any way is almost inevitable, the result of the increased blood flow and dilation of the capillaries, which proponents say brings more oxygen to the brain, eyes, skin and hair.
* Some discomfort at first is common (though not risky). Small studies have shown the brain is 7% more efficient and 14% more accurate in cerebral tests after regular inversion workouts.
* Patients who use inversions tables are about 70.5% less likely to need a back operation the long term, one study found.
* Gravity boots are issued to new recruits by the US army and are used to “reverse” the damage done to their bodies during their demanding training.