Like many other exercise machines that assure a quick fix for the exercise-challenged, the Range of Motion promises a complete workout in a few minutes four to be exact.

Sound too good to be true? Maybe and there's another catch.

Unlike all those late-night infomercial stalwarts, the ROM can't be had for a mere pittance like four monthly installments of $29.95. Nearly $15,000 is more like it.

Still, Romfab, the North Hollywood company that manufactures the pricey apparatus, has sold about 4,800 machines since 1990. The company claims ROM offers the sort of total body workout many people struggle to attain using a variety of machines and techniques.

Romfab owner Alf Temme acknowledges that his product is a tough sell. The machine, which weighs 405 pounds and is seven-and-a-half-feet long, is a busy-looking contraption of steel tubes and pulleys that functions like a rowing machine and a stair-stepper. Temme has long had to contend with skeptical fitness experts and the high price tag.

"It is basically people not being able to believe that you can get a workout in four minutes," said Temme, 67, who also owns Nordic Sauna, a Van Nuys sauna bath manufacturer. "Added to that, the additional challenge is that virtually 95 percent of the so-called experts in the field of exercise physiology don't believe it either. They are so arrogant as to believe it is totally a waste of their time (even) to look into it."

Temme has taken to advertising in the back of magazines, such as Forbes, that cater to an audience with lots of disposable income. He sells factory direct and mails marketing videos to prospective customers offering 30-day trial uses. The sales strategy has worked to a point, developing the machine a legion of devoted followers, though it remains a niche product.

"If you can afford it and your time is worth your money to you, I'd recommend it," said Fran Sherman, a St. Louis-based freelance graphic designer who purchased a ROM machine in 2007 after trying it for a month. "It's not a cakewalk, but it makes you feel like a million dollars afterwards."

Recently, Temme has had a new challenge. While his prospective customers are wealthy, even they are cutting back amid the severe economic downturn.

Romfab sold about 1,200 machines in 2006 and 1,100 in 2007. But this year sales are down about 50 percent, forcing him to cut his workforce to 17 employees from 27. Temme said he has no plans to reduce ROM's price. The solid stainless-steel machine is costly to build; it is hand-assembled by workers and its parts are cut with a laser.

"I've slashed overheard left, right and center," said Temme, who refuses to disclose revenues or his profit margin. "It will pretty much be what it will be."

Getting started

Temme, who was born in Hamburg, Germany, and lived in Sweden before emigrating to the U.S. in 1963, spent years building up his sauna business. In the mid-1970s he also owned a now-defunct chain of 25 fitness equipment stores. Contacts he developed running the business led him to ROM inventor John Pitre, who initially asked Temme only to distribute the machine, but Pitre's business failed after a year and half.

"I was asked whether I would like to manufacture the machine," said Temme. "I was reluctant. If the inventor goes broke why should I be interested?"

But Temme, who has a structural engineering degree from the University of Stockholm, plunged in because he felt that extensive changes could improve the machine. The inventor retains the patent and receives a monthly royalty from Temme.

"I redesigned the whole machine," said Temme, who in the early 1990s directed about $800,000 in profits from his sauna business into the project. By late 1992, Romfab was selling a redesigned version of the machine for $10,400.

Around that time, Temme's machine began to get some recognition from a curious news media. The machine was twice recognized by Popular Science and years later ROMfab continues to gain exposure from journalists eager to try out the $14,615 apparatus, which only comes in one model.

According to Temme, the key to the machine is its flywheel, which regulates resistance based on a user's strength and conditioning. The machine, which can be adjusted to a user's height and weight, offers both pushing and pulling resistance to the upper body, exercising the major muscle groups, including the chest and arms. The legs are worked through a stairstepping device. Temme encourages users to alternate daily between the machine's two exercise options.

Temme only consents to interviews about the ROM machine if reporters come to his office and try out the equipment. And, indeed, the workout is strenuous and challenging. A digital display shows a baseline of performance that paces the user a pace that becomes particularly challenging to follow as the four-minute workout continues.

However, many exercise experts say that no machine can offer a total body workout in just four minutes. Gunnar Peterson, a Beverly Hills-based personal trainer to Hollywood celebrities, said that he tried the machine when it hit the market in the early 1990s and has long been skeptical of ROMfab's claims.

"It works the major muscle groups of the body; it gives you multijoint movements, which any study will tell you give you greater caloric burn for your energy output. But at the end of the day, four minutes I'm laughing," said Peterson, who noted he studied the machine seven years ago when he was consulting for a business that considered partnering with ROMfab.

He said the machine could never replace a wide range of other fitness activities, likening it to "another tool in the toolbox."

Sara Willis, a personal trainer at Joe's Gym in Los Angeles, said that an effective workout of 20 minutes is required to "tap into fat storage to burn fat."

"To say you can do that in four minutes is impossible," she said.

Making headway

Still, Peterson said the machine has its merits, noting, "If I had a 30,000-square-foot facility I'd have one in the corner."

Despite a disbelieving industry, Temme has made some headway. About 10 percent of the machines are sold for commercial use. Clients include sports teams, physicians and even some gyms, including Quick Gym Los Angeles in Pasadena.

The gym is owned by Angela Kelly, a former Hollywood body double who first used the machine at a chiropractor's office. She said it helped eliminate her health problems, and she fell in love with it. In 2007, she started the gym and installed five of the machines.

"I was using it at the chiropractor's office and it left a lot of his patients wanting a machine," said Kelly. "I thought it was a great opportunity to start a gym."

For his part, Temme is interested in the possibility of getting the machines into more gyms. While he's cut down on his advertising budget and reduced staff levels, he's confident that his business can ride out the current economic decline.

"Believe me, it's not the price, it's really the too-good-to-be-true aspect," he said.

Romfab

Headquarters: North Hollywood

Founded: 1990

Core Business: Manufacturing and factory direct sales of an expensive exercise machine called Range of Motion

Employees: 17 (down from 27 in 2007)

Goal: To increase sales of the machine to private individuals, corporate wellness programs and so-called quick gyms

Driving Force: High-income buyers who want a fast, efficient way to stay in shape

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