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No Quick Fixes for 'Ab' Flab

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Manufacturers of yet another device, the electrical muscle stimulator (EMS), say it can take the place of "normal exercise" by stimulating muscle contractions using electronic impulses administered through wires and electrode pads. The ads appeal to those who want the benefits of exercising while "resting, reading, net surfing, or watching TV." Spend 45 minutes attached to these stimulators, one Canadian manufacturer says, and you've done the equivalent of 880 sit-ups.

EMS devices have been used successfully in physical rehabilitation settings to reduce muscle atrophy in bed-ridden patients, but no studies thus far have shown that EMS can help people lose weight or reduce body fat.

"They are catering to this get-fit-quick mentality," says John Porcari, PhD, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. Porcari conducted a study of the devices for ACE, published in the May/June 2000 issue of Fitness Matters. He found no significant differences in weight, body-fat percentage, strength, or overall appearance between study participants who received EMS treatments for eight weeks and a control group that was hooked up to machines modified to deliver no electrical current.

That's not to say home exercise equipment cannot play a valuable role in a well-rounded fitness program -- so long as users are realistic about what they can achieve. Connie Leibowitz, a 51-year-old mother and artist in Wilmette, Illinois, is a believer in home fitness devices. Some of the equipment that has graced her home includes a treadmill, stationary bike, stair climber, Pilates Performer, and a Torso Track. Two months ago, she "ran to the phone" to order the Ultra Track after she saw an ad on TV.

Leibowitz says she is "really happy" with the Torso Track and values the convenience of exercising at home. "When you have a baby, you don't get out," she says. But even with her array of home equipment, Leibowitz still goes to a health club two to three times a week. "I like going to the gym because it has everything and it has the space," she tells WebMD.

Porcari and others emphasize that people should not buy fitness devices -- even good ones -- in the hopes that they will motivate them to exercise. "In all honesty, there's only a small percentage of people who have the internal drive to exercise at home," says Porcari.

An article in the March issue of Consumer Reports, which reviews 12 popular home gyms, echoes that sentiment, noting that a survey of its readers taken a few years ago found only 25% of respondents who had bought exercise devices within the previous five years were still using them. More people -- almost 50% -- stuck with home gyms.

For those who want to work a home gym into their exercise routine, Consumer Reports evaluates models based on how well stations adjusted to users of varying sizes and strength levels, whether the exercises provided a full range of motion for muscle groups, and whether the motions were safe and effective.

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