Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
In an ideal world, your workout should do so much more for you than bump the latest Drake song — self-massage machines should relieve your tension using infrared lighting, vacuum pressure should help you burn three times the calories of a plain ol' jog, collagen lamps should blast away your cellulite as you pedal on a stationary bike. Welcome to the future of fitness, where multi-disciplinary workouts do double and triple duty from the ground up, starting with the machines. Welcome to The Art of Body Shape.
The facility is truly as Los Angeles as you can get: a futuristic workout with full-body benefits and a Beverly Hills zip-code. In essence, The Art of Body Shape is part exercise facility, part showroom, part space station. If Zenon went on to become Woman of the 21st Century and start her own entrepreneurial fitness corporation, this would be it, and Zetus Lapetus would she have some wild ideas up her sleeve. The individualized equipment is mostly meant for home use by fancy people with money to burn — most machines range between $15,000 and $20,000 — but here, even the common man can give them a shot; sweat seekers can buy a package of sessions or book time on specialized equipment through Classpass.
The thing that sets The Art of Body Shape apart isn't that everything's innovative or technologically savvy or even neon orange — it's that all of the cardio equipment has additional built-in skincare benefits. The cardio machines have collagen lamps and chromatherapy, the underwater bikes have hydromassage, and most equipment utilizes infrared lighting and aromatherapy for "relaxation benefits."
The theory that if you're going to spend money on skin care treatments and go to a spin class, why not do both in one session? is almost as intriguing as the showroom-studio itself. The facility is split into two sections, one with exercise machinery and another focusing on spa wellness. It is here, in a supremely zen enclave between the women's locker room and fitness area, that you can rejuvenate in a luxurious one-man cedar spa barrel sauna, lay on a buzzy relaxation couch, or enjoy a Japanese dry ofuro, an adult-sized crib filled with three kinds of relaxing sea salts that seems to only exist within the parent company's catalogue of products. (That single-person sauna doubles as the world's most relaxing guillotine; I want to run a Fortune 500 company simply so I can put one in my office.)
Heated body barrels aside, we're here for the workout. The eight machines featured at The Art of Body Shape are all designed by VacuActivus, and the two companies are deeply intertwined; most stock photos and informational videos on VacuActivus' website were taken in-studio and feature The Art of Body Shape studio staff. The first machine I hop on, the RollShape, is essentially a rotating collection of cedar wood spindles that conveniently foam rolls body parts — for the glamorpuss, like myself, who doesn't want to do it by hand. Resistance settings are adjustable — it's so strong that first time users can be bruised the next day (!) — and the RollShape is touted as helping with cellulite reduction and lymphatic drainage, which helps to rid your body of toxins. I'm told by the studio's director of marketing Angelique Millis that it takes 10 sessions before I start seeing results; the closer they are together, the faster I'll notice a difference.
Next up are VacuActivus' most impressive ventures: a set of vacuum-pressurized machines said to be three times more effective than traditional equipment, and show results three times faster. After putting on a vacuum belt, which is essentially a neoprene A-line skirt, I hop on the BodyShape Treadmill and fit my new garment over the lip of the machine. In an instant, I transform into a fitness centaur — half woman, half behemoth piece of equipment — as I am sucked down into the treadmill and forced to resist while walking. This pressure, as well as treadmill speed and incline are all adjustable, but I find it difficult to feel normal while just walking, using arm resistance to keep from being sucked down as the vacuum pushed against me. I hear about super-fit patrons who somehow jog on this machinery; this immediately makes me want to resign as a fitness writer.
I next use the Infrashape Horizontal, which is essentially like having a fitness C-section, as something my brain cannot comprehend is happening on the other side of the wall below my torso, and I can't quite explain what I'm feeling. The recumbent bike uses the same vacuum pressure, but pushing up with my arms and pedaling forward inside an aromatherapy and chromatherapy-filled pod that makes me feel like Violet Beauregarde, if only her big blueberry body was bulbous boutique equipment.
When you combine the infrared heating, vacuum resistance, and collagen lamps built into these two machines, your body is said to absorb the collagen, your lymphatic system is stimulated by bringing blood to the surface of the skin, and in turn, your cellulite is reduced and fat is eliminated more easily. (Well, supposedly eliminated more easily — we'll get to that soon.)
I feel different after walking and biking on this duo in a truly indescribable way: wiggly and warm and funny, like a teenage sexual awakening but strictly physical. It's completely bizarre; I absolutely love it. When else can you fight cellulite while laying down and lay down while exercising?
The facility also has a Vibrashape, a Power Plate-like device with infrared light that's said to help with deeply stored fat cells as well as three Hydrobikes, which are essentially tiny individual underwater cycling pods. Guests are required to wear a silver space suit (Zenon much?!), which totally ruins the fun of getting in the water; I'm told it's to "protect your skin", but a regular I chat with in the locker room tells me it's for sanitary reasons, as they reuse the water.)
Generally speaking, the health and skincare claims for these machines are, well, impressive. I was told of tons of benefits in-person, but the website claims "better blood flow" for more elastic and firmer skin, "fast burning of fatty tissue," release of "happiness hormones" and even "elimination of ‘cold feet' syndrome," whatever that means. It promises everything you'd ever want from a workout with everything you'd ever want from a skincare treatment in one, but obviously begs the question: does it actually work?
Trying to substantiate the claims of innovative fitness equipment feels like being stuck in the middle of political debate between a Bernie stan and pro-wall Trump's supporter; my instinct is to run as far as fuck away from all of it. As there is not enough adderall in existence to help me comprehend a scientific paper on infrared technology, I speak with Dr. Scott Weiss, a board-certified athletic trainer, physical therapist, exercise physiologist, and strength and conditioning specialist to help me understand what exactly is going on below that vacuum belt.
"These things are not really perfectly researched yet," Weiss explains. "Of all the research studies that you look at, there's just about the same amount, maybe more saying that it does not work, and if it does work, it is very minimal — minimal to a point of not being noticeable."
Basically, when a doctor tells you whilst researching a story about vaccuum fitness that "the cornerstone to any physique is diet," you know you're in for a dose of truth. It seems that most of these add-ons are either legitimate but for things besides weight loss, or are theorized to do plenty but remain to be proven. Infrared light, for example, causes the cellular wall to loosen, which may make it easier to break down and metabolize fat; it makes a small change, but Dr. Weiss says research doesn't show it increasing cellular fat burning, and doesn't make a remarkable difference when combined with exercise. (It's worth noting that Dr. Weiss purchased a competitor's infrared bike and wound up returning it six months later.)
And the crazy cool vacuum machines? Well, the pressure "doesn't have much to do with caloric expenditure" he says. "You're gonna be losing weight, no doubt, but it's water weight." Like jogging in a sweat suit, the vacuum machine doesn't let the body cool, causing more sweat — but not more lasting weight loss. Not so beneficial in the long-run, but hey, quite ideal before a red carpet step-and-repeat. I tell him about my undeniably wiggly legs afterwards, and he credits the collagen lamp, which is typically used in sports medicine and physical therapy for loosening scar tissue to make it more pliable for stretching and strengthening. The lamp does in fact loosen connective tissue, tendons, muscle and fascia, but reduce cellulite while wearing shorts? Mmm...not so much.
He affirms that the RollShape can alter one's appearance, likening it to treatments such as CoolSculpting and explaining that the machinery pushes things around and flattens out cells, giving the appearance of losing inches, but will eventually go back to its original state. The infrared on this machine is beneficial, too — it warms the tissue to be more pliable — but it all comes a warning. "If this was really known and very solidly proven, I think more people would be doing it. I think this is a field that is just burgeoning," he explains. "I think that there needs to be a lot more research in the field before we all start to start taking place in it. There may be a place in it for fitness and rehab, but I'm not sure it's all related to fat loss."
There are two exceptions to this, though: the VibraShape and the HydroBike. While it's not a weight loss device, a vibratory plate causes the muscles around a joint to repeatedly co-contract, which provides more stability, but "it's not known that vibrations will increase cellular fat metabolism." And then there's the king of all machines: the individual underwater cycle, which totally checks out. "Water is the only true form of isokinetic resistance, which means when you work your muscles, you overload the muscle. You burn more calories in the water when you're cycling than not in the water" Weiss explained, adding that underwater exercise burns more calories and thus, more fat.
That one point — that if it worked, everyone would be doing it — sticks with me. It's difficult to tell if there's nothing out there proving these claims to be true because it's a whole foot-long sandwich full of bologna, or just that it's simply so new and exclusive that not everyone has had the opportunity to know about it. You're not going to go to Yelp to read reviews of Khloe Kardashian's celebrity trainer because no one has been able to work with him; the same could be said of this space-like machinery.
I'm told equipment like this is all "big overseas," a narrative that sounds and feels truthful but cannot be substantiated by research outside of webpages that look straight from the days of Geocities. It's somewhat true for underwater cycling — just like dipping baguettes in gooey butter-cheese and routinely washing your face, French people are obsessed with it, as surprisingly reiterated by Pippa Middleton, but infrared exercise? I just can't find enough places offering it at all. Perhaps there's a basement of a Dubai castle filled with rows of them, or every high-end Thai spa secretly has them on display, I'm not sure; researching the latter brought up more information on colon cleansing than technologically advanced fitness bikes.
But, while The Art of Body Shape is absolutely the only studio of its kind in the U.S., VacuActivus is not the only company creating or hawking these products. Stimulight andSaunalite use portable UV lights to turn a treadmill workout into a small-scale movie production, London's Hydrofit has two locations with the individualized cycling pods and PhysioRed makes a well-known recumbent bicycle bathed in infrared light. It's innovative fitness technology that may just be fitness, technology, and innovation happening disjointedly at once.
I'm not sure who to believe: the promise of a better workout tomorrow, or the science that claims it's not true ‘til it's proven. Regardless, it's wild that these high-end machines are just accessible to the public in this way. You can't lease a Maserati for the same price as a Prius, but at The Art of Body Shape, you can drop in and take a ride, just like any other studio.
So maybe it doesn't work. It's still fun and interesting and weird and I love it; i am dying to come back with friends. All of my cellulite may not melt off like an ice cream cake left in the sun, but if I walk off a treadmill feeling warm and wiggly and more like Madonna than I ever have in my entire life, there's something to that — something that makes coming back to feel great and maybe even look a little better worth it.