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Hula Chair: Sitting down gets dangerous

By Linda Dahlstrom, health editor

What is it: Hula Chair; $129.95 at www.gadgetuniverse.com

What it claims to do: "Beautify" and build the body and "obese waist and belly." The manufacturer also says it will enhance circulation and, somehow, relieve hemorrhoids.

My experience: Promotional materials that come with the Hula Chair say that a "fat waist and belly are caused by the lack of sports and accumulation of fat on these parts." That is exactly my problem: No sports and fat on my waist have resulted in, well, a fat waist.

Part carnival ride, part hefty office furniture, the Hula Chair looks rather respectable. It's when you press the "on" button that things get weird. I've never been on a mechanical bull, but I suspect I'm in the ballpark of accurate comparison. On the lowest settings, the Hula Chair feels a little like being in a rowboat during a storm. On the highest, the chair bucked, thumped, crept across the room, threw me against its unpadded arms and generally beat me up. At no point did I feel like I was doing the hula.

But working your muscles isn't supposed to be comfortable, right? That's the point. No pain, no gain.

I'm just not sure a diaper rash is the right kind of pain. One of the days I tested the Hula Chair I wore a skirt with a rough texture. Add the friction of an hour's worth of gyrating movement on the chair's seat and a little sweat and the next morning I was digging through a cupboard for an old jug of baby powder. Clothing wasn't on the manufacturer's list of 27 "safety points for attention," but it did warn away those with "serious bleeding wounds," people with "equipment trapped inside" and "persons that need a rest cure" from using it. Also, stay off it when you're wet. Word to that.

Advertisements for the chair show people calmly working as they "hula." They seamlessly manage to file, type, talk on the phone – a great way to exercise at work, right? Except that I really couldn't work. I did manage to type while gyrating at the lower settings although I felt a little seasick after a while. As for the higher settings, I got tangled in the messenger bag near my leg, couldn't keep my hands steady enough to hold the phone, knocked papers off my desk and left a string of typos in my wake.

I wasn't the only one who had a hard time getting the job done. My colleague cover producer Josh Belzman tried leading the news meeting from the Hula Chair but could hardly read his notes. Also, he said,  "I'm a short guy and like the 'command seating' position. The Hula chair has no height adjustment, which makes it tough to use in an office environment."

Another co-worker, who is very slender, tried out the chair and had to hang on with both hands to keep from flying out of it. "That's a little too much stimulation," she decided.

Still, even if none of us could actually work while riding the chair, it was more fun than heading to the gym. And surely with all the contortions I had to make to keep myself from being flung from the chair, I was getting a good workout, right? Right?

What the expert says: Msnbc.com fitness contributor Jay Blahnik can understand the appeal of the Hula Chair. "We're attracted to things that look like a ride. It's especially appealing to people who are out of shape and have a harder time moving," said the Laguna Beach, Calif.-based fitness trainer who has worked with celebrities including Jane Fonda.

But will it strengthen my abs and slim down my waist? "None of those things are going to happen," said Blahnik, author of "Full Body Flexibility." But the chair does do something.  "It's passive exercise; the only effort is in reacting to what's happening," he said. Just as there's benefit to a physical therapist moving a paralyzed person's legs to help the circulation, the Hula Chair causes your body to react to being whirled around. "At the lowest level there is going to be a reaction in your abs, it's just that the claims are completely elevated."

Blahnik says that simply standing at your desk and doing hip circles or reaching over your head and bending side to side will have the same effect. "With the Hula Chair, you're moving the spine in the same [way], but it's not exercising."

Bottom line: The Hula Chair provides hilarity, excitement, suspense and an element of danger. What it doesn't offer is actual exercise.