I Tried This Tik Tok-Approved Leg Machine To See If It Could Cure My Ills

Illustrated by Esther Lalanne
Can you remember the last time you actually felt good? Waking up without the feeling of dread that has accompanied most of this hell year is almost unimaginable at this point. The days and weeks pass in meaningless sameness, only the weather tips us off to what season we’re currently in.
2020, as a result, feels less like an actual year and more like a series of fads that I have invested in in a bid to cure, well, all of the above. Of course, there was lockdown baking, followed quickly by the realisation that there’s only so much banana bread one person can eat. There was playing Animal Crossing on my Nintendo which became its own source of incessant stress. There was colouring in, which left me more stressed out than I was before.
We live in unprecedented times and we’re all feeling the effects. In June, mental health charity Mind surveyed 16,000 people and found that over half of adults and young people reported worse mental health as a result of the lockdown in March. Whenever I sit down to work out what actually feels wrong, I can’t help but flail my arms helplessly and just go, “Everything?”. I feel sluggish. I feel tired. My attention wanders instantly no matter what I’m trying to do. I catch myself clenching my jaw about fourteen times a day. The world which before felt so wide and free now seems so very, very small, and my body feels like it has trash compacted inwards as a result. More worryingly, the charity also found that people were self-medicating by over- and under-eating (over half), using alcohol and recreational drugs (a third) and self-harm (a third of young people with existing mental health problems).

In June, Mind surveyed 16,000 people and found that over half of adults and young people reported worse mental health as a result of the lockdown in March.

Just last month Rethink Mental Illness warned of a “looming mental health crisis”, reporting that visits to their website for advice had doubled in the six months after the first lockdown was announced. With a second lockdown on the horizon, shorter days and a general feeling that the government has completely ballsed up dealing with the pandemic, no doubt these problems are set to be compounded in lockdown 2.0.
Nothing worked for me last time. I got sleeping pills, I upped my Citalopram dosage, I fell in love...still, the malaise lingered. So, when I stumbled across the Chi Machine on Tiktok, I thought: could this leg waggling machine be the answer to all my mental and physical ills?
The Chi Machine makes a lot of claims about what it can do for you. It was invented in the 1980s by Dr Shizou Inoue who got the idea by watching goldfish swimming. He reckoned that the way they moved was the optimum way to funnel oxygen around the body and decided that anything fish could do, we could do too (aside from the breathing underwater thing). He wasn’t just taking a punt - he’d spent years researching oxygenating exercise and was once the chairman of Japan’s Oxygen Health Association. His Sun Ancon Aerobic Exerciser (Chi Machine to you and I) was the result. You can get cheaper imitations on Amazon but if this was going to change my life, I was going to go straight to the source so I went for the original.
If you believe the dedicated followers of Chi, the benefits of fish-flopping around in this way extend further than just oxygenating your blood. Allegedly, it can also drain your body of lymphatic toxins, exercise your spine, stabilise your blood pressure and, even tone your abs. Fifteen minutes on the Chi Machine is supposedly equivalent to 90 minutes of walking in terms of oxygenation of the blood. Given all of these claims - it’s no surprise that the machine has spawned much content on TikTok, where people have been filming their wobbly legs and giggly responses after Mamina Turegano posted a video of her mum using her Chi Machine.
Basically if I can sit down to exercise, I’m in. So I decided to give it a go. The Chi Machine is unassuming - a chunk of white plastic that looks a bit like a stepping stool with a small padded ankle rest on top. As a generalised hypochondriac, the first thing I thought was, “Hey I wonder if this is dangerous?” so I spoke to Nicola Gilbert, a natural health specialist and Chi Machine advocate. I asked her how long I’d need to use the thing to feel the benefits, expecting a reply like “three or four weeks”. “Oh about four minutes,” she said. I was sceptical.

The Chi Machine was invented in the 1980s by Dr Shizuou Inoue who got the idea by watching goldfish swimming. If you believe the dedicated followers of Chi, the benefits of fish-flopping extend further than just oxygenating your blood.

Studies have found that the machine can help reduce lymphatic fluid retention, particularly in people who have had cancer treatments or are significantly overweight. An Australian study (which was, to be fair, conducted in conjunction with a Chi Machine manufacturer so is highly questionable).
Now I’m not going to lie: you do feel quite silly lying on the floor being wobbled about like you’ve got your feet in a pretzel maker. But it’s definitely not unpleasant. At first I couldn’t stop laughing at the strangeness of the experience but after a few seconds I just lay back and let the undulations take me, wondering if I was relaxed enough for it to be working. Because the motion begins at your feet and ripples up your body, if you give into it your head can end up flopping from side to side - it doesn’t feel particularly glamorous but it is enjoyable if you’ve spent all day sitting at your makeshift desk of a laptop perched on a cushion on your lap.
The medical experts are conflicted on whether or not the Chi Machine is actually medically useful; there is plenty of anecdotal evidence in reviews from happy users that it has lessened their aches and pains and allowed them to do some form of physical movement that might otherwise not be possible (a lot of Chi Machine users are... quite old).
However, Dr Gerard Varlotta who specialises in sports spine and joint rehabilitation tells me it’s nothing more than a “totally passive way of supplying increased circulation to a muscle, and that’s all.” He’s basically saying that lying on the floor having your legs nudged from side to side is not the same as doing a work out which, honestly, is not a surprise.
The Chi machine might make for good TikTok videos and, as the timer clicked off abruptly, I certainly felt pleasantly drunk. My hands and feet were tingling and there was honestly no way I could have stood straight up without flopping back down to the floor as if all my bones had dissolved. It’s recommended that you do a few spine twists before slowly getting up but for the first minute I just lay there feeling comfortably woozy.
I asked Nicola what the heck was going on in my body in this post-fish state. “It’s just the amazing result of Dr Shizou Inoue’s research,” she said. “It takes gravitational pressure off the nerve roots and disks in the spine, counteracting our gravity-defying, pain-inducing upward stance.” The movements, she added, have been precisely calculated to be a multiple of the average pulse rate which adds to the relaxation of the movement. As a seasoned Chi Machine user, she still finds it incredible after 18 years’ use: “It’s astonishing.” 
Dr Varlotta is less convinced but what I do know is this: I enjoy using "the leg waggler" as it is affectionately known in my household and have started looking forward to zoning out and being shaken around for four minutes a day. It hasn't magically given me abs and I don't feel any less doom but my body does feel a bit less like a useless sack of flesh than it did. If nothing else, the Chi Machine provided a short high in a time when highs are few and far between and for that I thank it. Will it end up in the cupboard with my baking trays, colouring books, shiatsu machine, jumper-folding device and tarot cards? Probably.

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