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.
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.
Scoring high on all measures was the Hoist Multi-Gym H210, followed by the Body Solid Multi-Station EXM-1500S. The H210 goes for a pricey $1,700, while the EXM-1500S was rated a CR Best Buy at $700. The least expensive machine, the Total Gym 1000 for $200, ranked in the middle as good overall, but it is limited to about half of a user's body weight and therefore may be inadequate for stronger users, according to the magazine.
Some home devices -- particularly those that cost less than $200 - may also not be built to last. Len Kravitz, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico, advises users to become familiar with a product's warranty and return policy. Consumers often must foot the shipping bill for returning a device, and some companies tack on a restocking fee. It is also a good idea to check the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any consumer problems with the manufacturer.
Overall, no machine can beat peer pressure as a motivator, says CC Cunningham, MS, a certified personal trainer from Chicago. Having a workout partner, going to a gym where others are exercising, or getting a personal trainer can help people stay on track. "The reason personal training is successful is we're your conscience," she says. "It's not the info we give, or the piece of equipment we use, but it's holding you responsible. There's nothing about a Thighmaster that makes you show up."
Sarah Yang is a freelance writer in El Cerrito, Calif., who has written for The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Examiner. She is a frequent contributor to WebMD.