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No Quick Fixes for 'Ab' Flab

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

March 5, 2001 -- From ab rollers to bun rockers, exercise devices have become TV infomercial staples, promising a fast path to fitness. The past decade, especially, has seen the world of home exercise equipment grow beyond the treadmill and stationary bike to gadgets that promise washboard stomachs and flab-free thighs, often with just a few minutes of daily use.

Delivering on those promises can be another matter. Some of the few scientific studies evaluating these home exercise devices have been conducted on behalf of the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a San Diego nonprofit organization that publishes a bimonthly consumer magazine called ACE FitnessMatters. And when closely examined, many of the TV ads' claims appear to crumble.

"The machines rarely give what the infomercial promises," says Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist for ACE. "The investment is usually not worth it, especially if the device exercises just one muscle group." What's more, many machines cost $500 or more.

Four years ago, the ACE magazine published a study on four popular abdominal training devices: Ab Roller Plus, Ab Sculptor, AB Trainer, and AB Works. Using electromyography (special testing to measure muscle contraction activity), researchers at California State University Northridge monitored five target muscles in the torso and neck areas of 19 men and women in their early 20s as they used the devices, and while they performed standard abdominal crunches. They found that a properly performed abdominal crunch was no less effective than using the products -- and it was free.

The ads for the devices claimed consumers could "work off pounds and inches" and develop "more effective crunches," all in "just minutes a day."

"Fitness demands every muscle group of the body," says David Nieman, DrPH, professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. He agrees with those who say that people cannot spot-reduce their potbellies merely by exercising that one area. Any effort to change body-fat composition or to lose weight requires at least 20 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to five days each week. And even that won't help much if burgers and curly fries are your diet staples.

The exercise-and-eat-right formula may sound simple, but "the vast majority of Americans have a hard time sticking with that regimen," says Nieman.

Two years ago, Nieman helped ACE examine another get-fit-quick claim, this time promoted by the manufacturers of Time Works, a combination step climber and upper body-twisting machine. According to the ads, Time Works gave users "full-body fitness in just four minutes a day." The ads went on to say the machine combined an aerobic workout with strength and flexibility training.

After testing 28 moderately active college students who used the machine for four minutes, Nieman found that the study participants burned only eight calories per minute, and their metabolisms returned to normal within 15 minutes after stopping the exercise. "It was roughly like half an apple's worth of energy," says Nieman, whose study was published in the March/April 1997 issue of FitnessMatters.

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