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Published: Wednesday, 1/2/2008

Local health enthusiast's device lands on national TV

Joe Sparks of Perrysburg Township says his invention, the EZ Run Belt, promotes the proper exercise mechanics. Joe Sparks of Perrysburg Township says his invention, the EZ Run Belt, promotes the proper exercise mechanics.
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Joe Sparks maintains himself in great shape.

The 51-year-old massage therapist is lean and limber. Sparks, a longtime health enthusiast, competes often in triathlons and teaches yoga in his workout studio in Perrysburg Township.

However, the East Toledo native hopes to make his mark in the health and fitness world with a workout device he created a few years ago called The EZ Run Belt.

The invention, which landed him an appearance on ABC's American Inventor show during the summer, is designed to help people run more efficiently.

"Running is more like cycling than walking," Sparks said.

"It [The EZ Run Belt] teaches you correct running mechanics."

Sparks' product restricts the legs from taking long strides with the use of rubber tubing that connects a belt worn around the waist to straps worn around the ankles. Sparks said the key to someone running efficiently is to understand that lifting the legs upward and leaning forward is more productive than taking long strides.

"You just focus on lifting your legs and not on landing them on the ground," he said. "They will always come down because of gravity. All you have to do is pick them up."

Sparks, who created the belt in 2005, made his pitch to a number of area high school and college coaches before Bowsher track coaches Mark Coe and Mark Graham finally agreed to give the belt a try two years ago. It is since been incorporated into the Rebels' track workouts.

"Running gets down to the point of running correctly, and that's what the belt forces you to do," said Coe, who retired as Bowsher's girls track coach before the start of this school year after 10 years overseeing the Rebels program.

"It teaches you to not overstride."

Rebels track standouts Meshawn Graham, a three-time state champion, and Aeric Clay, a multiple state finalist sprinter who attends Eastern Michigan University, have worked out with the EZ Run Belt.

Graham plans to pack the EZ Run Belt in her luggage when she goes off to college this fall at the University of Michigan.

"I think it's really good to use, especially when using it the right way," said Graham, a Division I 100, 200, and 800-meter-relay state champion. "It helped me with my knee lift.

"I think it helps with form. It helps perfect it."

Mark Graham, Meshawn's father and a Bowsher assistant coach, said the belt is capable of aiding all athletes, not just track athletes.

"It's basically for correcting your running. If you run correctly you run faster, and it's made to make you run correctly," he said.

That is one of the points Sparks tried to make to the American Inventor judges, along with its potential use as a preventative device for avoiding leg injuries. He proved convincing enough at the Chicago audition to make the cut and become one of fewer than 100 out of more than 10,000 to move on to present their inventions or ideas before the show's celebrity judges.

Former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman, who has been best-known later in his life for the Foreman Grill, was the lone judge who thought highly enough of Sparks' product to offer an approving vote. Even after being eliminated, Sparks received an encouraging e-mail from Foreman to keep pushing forward with promoting his invention.

Sparks keeps a copy of Foreman's framed e-mail hanging in his office.

"He said it made sense to him and he thought I had something [good]," Sparks said of Foreman's message.

Sparks has sold a few hundred of the belts through online purchases at www.fitnesswithjoe.com or directly to individuals. Order requests for the $59.95 EZ Run Belt have come in from all over the world, including Australia, Japan, Europe, and Canada.

Although he hopes to someday have help, Sparks personally handles filling any orders that are placed.

"It's been worth it," he said. "I'm enjoying the whole process because I never saw myself as an inventor."

Contact Donald Emmons at: demmons@theblade.com, or 419-724-6302.

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