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.
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.