At least three days a week, right around noon, Joanne Milani parks her Chevy Astro in downtown Catonsville and takes care of a quick bit of business.
Picks up dry cleaning? Gets cash from the ATM? Nope. She squeezes in a workout. Really squeezes: It takes her less than 10 minutes to complete a full-body routine. And that's with the clock running from car door to gym floor and back again.
"I put a nickel in the parking meter every time I go, and the meter has never expired on me," says Milani, a 35-year-old, typically harried mother of four.
Her destination is R.O.M. Works, a storefront health club that Milani says she frequents for two reasons: "It's convenient and it's Ron and Margaret."
Ron Price, a barrel-chested, retired Maryland state trooper, and Margaret Northrup, an angular, former community college professor, are co-owners of R.O.M. Works.
Price and Northrup run a mellow operation: soft rock plays in the background, workout gloves provided at no charge. They even throw a picnic each summer for their customers. They also offer the ultimate fitness-friendly guarantee: Give them eight minutes of your time just a couple of days a week, and they'll give you a leaner, stronger, aerobically-tuned physique, one that would take hours of regularly scheduled, conventional exercise to achieve.
Price and Northrup don't deliver on that promise by themselves. They have silent partners.
"These are my babies," says Price, gesturing toward a trio of gleaming, nickel-plated contraptions that stand in the center of the modest, no-frills exercise room.
The machines look like high-tech, ergonomically designed knockoffs of Santa's sleigh. The front half of each ROM-QuickGym resembles a rower, albeit one that offers resistance both pushing and pulling. The back half of the ROM is a kind of super StairMaster with an elongated stepping motion that brings the knees almost to the armpits.
"Typically, within three months clients take an inch off the waist, two inches off their hips and one inch off their thighs," says Northrup.
Time is money in America -- and nobody wants to waste any. Hence, the landscape is littered with everything from drive-in banks to drive-in oil changes. If we can have fast food, why not fast fitness?
Works many muscles
Romfab, the California-based company that makes ROM-QuickGym, declares in its promotional literature that the machine provides the cardio-vascular equivalent of "30 minutes of aerobics, weight training, and stretching."
In only eight minutes? C'mon.
"I would be skeptical with that point," says Brian Krabak, an assistant professor of physical medicine and orthopedics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The lasting effects of short, high-intensity workouts are uncertain, Krabak notes, adding that the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 20 to 30 minutes of "cumulative exercise" a day, preferably five times a week.
Walt Thompson, a professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University and an American College of Sports Medicine fellow, says ROM-QuickGym is "just a different machine" making some familiar, highfalutin claims.
Any number of abridged exercise regimens can produce impressive results if the users aren't in good shape to begin with, he explains. But better-conditioned people won't see any payoff unless they substantially increase the length of aerobic activity.
ROM was designed by John Pitre, a surrealist painter from Hawaii who doubles as a gadfly mechanical engineer. Not exactly bulletproof credentials. But the beauty of Pitre's creation, say ROM proponents, is that it works more than half the muscles in the body at once, on average forcing them through 80 percent of their full range of motion. Romfab contends no other conditioning system comes close to matching those specs.
Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Paula Abdul, self-help guru Anthony Robbins and golfer David Duval are ROM converts. Then again, you almost have to be an A-list celebrity to afford a ROM-QuickGym, which lists for $14,615.
Price and Northrup, who learned about the machine from their chiropractor, decided to open the world's first all-ROM gym in hopes of bringing that technology to the masses. They charge club members a flat fee of $40 per month.
R.O.M. Works (the R.O.M. stands for "range of motion") has the feel of a barbershop as much as a health club. Customers dribble in, take a "chair," break a sweat for a few minutes, chat for a few minutes, then go on their way. Some don't bother changing, opting to work out in street clothes.
The clientele, which fluctuates between 150 and 200 depending on the season, is surprisingly diverse, indistinguishable from the folks you could find standing in a checkout line at Wal-Mart. A grandmother might be huffing her way through the rowing cycle on one machine while a 15-year-old boy struggles to finish his four minutes of leg-work on another.
"I came in as a skeptic because I'd taught aerobics for eight years," says Cindi Pridgen, 44, a massage therapist from Catonsville. "I haven't given up my gym workouts, but it's nice to have an alternative. There's a lot of people here who would never walk into a gym. I think that's a good niche because, God knows, America has enough people who don't do anything."
Richard Garry, 57, was never much for lifting weights. He started coming to R.O.M. Works two years ago after undergoing a triple- bypass heart operation. He's now 30 pounds lighter and says, "I don't know what I'd do without it."
Marie Mattese, 47, had back surgery three years ago and walks with a cane. She started ROM workouts three months ago at the suggestion of a neighbor. "I haven't been able to sit cross-legged in more than 10 years," says Mattese. "Last night I did it."
Hang around R.O.M. Works for a few hours and you'll likely hear similar testimonials. Maybe that's because, for a lot of customers, this is the first time they've stuck with an exercise program. They're full of Feel Good. Maybe it's the thrill of being on the ground floor of a new fitness thing, controversial or not.
Price, who dropped 56 pounds after discovering ROM, thinks the country may be blanketed with QuickGym clubs someday. For now, though, "the problem is getting other people to believe it."
John McAdams, who just turned 40, proved an easy sell. He took Price and Northrup up on their standing offer of three free introductory sessions, even though he has a Total Gym at home.
"It's a complete stretch of your arms and chest, but you can feel your heart pumping," McAdams says after doing battle with the ROM rower.
He rests a few minutes, then steps on the back of the machine to do his four-minute leg workout. His calves turn progressively rubbery under the strain. McAdams stumbles off the pedals as his time expires.
"Minus 10 on the dismount," Northrup quips, as she records his performance numbers.
McAdams is breathless, but not broken. "So-o-o," he asks between gulps of air, "what do I do to join now?"