No Quick Fixes for 'Ab' Flab
Check Out Fitness Ads
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
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.