KC inventor’s Space Age fitness technology comes back to Earth

Check out this Kansas City inventor's space-age fitness equipment

Paul Francis developed his SpiraFlex technology that helped astronauts combat muscle and bone loss in space. His new product, the DoubleFlex Portable Gym, uses the same technology to take the weight out of lifting weights.
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Paul Francis developed his SpiraFlex technology that helped astronauts combat muscle and bone loss in space. His new product, the DoubleFlex Portable Gym, uses the same technology to take the weight out of lifting weights.

Where do you go once you’ve conquered space? Paul Francis has his eye on everywhere else.

The Kansas City inventor’s SpiraFlex technology already has orbited the Earth in the International Space Station. NASA figured years ago that it was the right stuff for astronauts. They need exercise to fight off the debilitating effects that prolonged weightlessness can have on muscles and bones.

SpiraFlex provides that exercise by using resistance instead of weight to work muscle and bone.

The effort comes from stretching an elastomer made of rubber and other ingredients — combined with some mechanical technology — to create a weight-free alternative to lifting weights. Muscles push and pull against the resistance rather than heavy weights (which, of course, would be weightless in space).

Francis’ inventiveness was to fit that resistance inside his SpiraFlex packs. These are disks roughly the shape and size of traditional weights for a barbell set. They come in different “weights” and stack to make for the right workout.

Francis has licensed his weightless-weights technology for the Earth-bound BowFlex Revolution exercise equipment.

His newest venture, called OYO Fitness, is making weight-free weights portable.

“I miniaturized this technology into a smaller pack,” Francis said. “Each one of these packs puts out 5 pounds of resistance. … Just snap them on (or off) to increase or decrease the resistance.”

The product is called DoubleFlex Portable Gym, and it weighs a couple of pounds all in. It’s small enough to take to work or on vacation, and it can be used in any room in the house.

Too heavy

Francis first pursued a resistance-driven alternative to lifting weights in the early 1990s. He was an architect who liked to work out and wanted something portable, not heavy.

The NASA connection came a few years later. He was reading an article about how astronaut Shannon Lucid had lost muscle mass and bone density from a long stay in space. After a couple of SpiraFlex presentations in Houston, NASA signed on, and Francis developed the equipment that was in space for more than decade.

Getting there involved a few failed launches.

Francis started out using what he called “steel power springs,” metal wound up like a watch spring only much bigger and, obviously, heavier. Too heavy.

“They were working OK, but they were almost weighing as much as the weights I was trying to replace,” Francis recalled.

And they were breaking after about 10,000 uses, far too quickly for a product anyone would want to buy. The switch to the elastomer and other technology did the trick.

“We found a specialized compound that had the best elasticity and life cycle,” Francis said.

Success in space led to an early home gym using SpiraFlex that was sold by Schwinn Cycling & Fitness. Then Francis licensed his SpiraFlex technology for BowFlex Revolution home gyms, and the licensing fee checks kept coming in.

Those checks provided most of the money behind the development of OYO Fitness and DoubleFlex.

Spokes man

Francis also experimented with designs.

His Flex Packs contain stretchable bands in a spoke formation around a center hub. Exercising motions turn that hub and stretch the bands into a tighter and tighter spiral.

Mechanical elements keep the effort constant — 10 pounds, 40 pounds, whatever the pack rating is — even as the bands stretch more and more. Wider bands, thicker bands and more spokes make for a higher weight equivalent.

“Eight spokes seem to work the best,” Francis said.

The portable DoubleFlex became possible when Francis made small, 5-pound packs about the diameter of a coaster. They snap onto the center of a lightweight jointed frame.

Bending the frame or extending its cables flexes the packs to provide resistance and exercise.

OYO Fitness offers its DoubleFlex online for $119 and sells it at 175 Brookstone stores, including the store in the Oak Park Mall.

It also will be part of the “Get in Shape” segment at 10 p.m. Monday on QVC Plus, available locally as Channel 481 on Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable), and on QVC online.

The DoubleFlex Black, a second version that packs more weight and allows fuller extensions, is available through Kickstarter.

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar