Here's a shocker
Electrical belt to tone abs may not work the magic you expect
By Tracy Mack
Tribune staff reporter

February 3, 2002

TV is humming with infomercials pushing electrical muscle stimulators, gadgets such as Fast Abs, Abtronic and Ab Energizer, that purport to help tone, tighten and strengthen the body without "exercise." The thought of developing rock-hard abs without doing sit-ups, crunches or the dreaded 30 minutes of cardio workouts three times a week is downright seductive. But many doctors and exercise professionals say there's a problem with these devices: They may not work. A study to be released in May in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reportedly will confirm that EMS machines have little to no effect on firming abdominal muscles of healthy people. "It's more of a gimmick than anything else," said Tommy Boone, professor and chairman of the department of exercise physiology at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., where he also is director of the school's department of Exercise Physiology Laboratories. "Some people would take issue with that, but those people probably have stock in the business."

Manufacturers of non-prescription, non-medical EMS machines often claim a scientific basis for product effectiveness. The devices are said to contract muscles by passing electrical currents through electrodes that are in contact with the body. The current for most of the products is felt only once a gel or cream is applied to the electrode and to the skin. Nevertheless the Food and Drug Administration has warned that EMS machines can cause electrical shocks and burns when used incorrectly.

If used correctly, there can be pain. Vickie Knight, an employee of Black Voices (a Tribune-owned Web site), bought one of the machines in December.

"I bought it to trim my midsection," she said. "The advertising said that one 10-minute session was equivalent to doing 600 sit-ups. That sounded great to me because I could keep it on while I was at work, at home, wherever.

"But when I put it on, particularly on my side, it was really painful," Knight said. "It hurts less when I put it on my stomach, so I keep it there when I use it. I've gotten used to the pain." Knight said she has been using her product for about five weeks and has yet to see any change.

Dr. Venu Akuthota of the Center for Spine and Sports at the Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago, which uses medical EMS machines, explained why these machines might be painful. At lower intensities, Akuthota said, EMS would not build muscle. In fact, he doubts that they would at higher intensities either.

"The research that I've seen indicates that continuous pulses above 20 beats per second would be effective in building muscle strength for people who may have spinal cord injuries or who are in a cast, but this usage is not practical because it would hurt too much."

Knight acknowledged using her machine on 10, its highest frequency. But because the product has not been subjected to FDA scrutiny, know one knows for sure the actual frequency at which the unit operates.

This is one of many questionable factors about EMS stimulators. The potential to cause cardiac arrhythmia should concern users, experts say. In addition, because these machines stimulate the flow of blood to the surrounding tissue, they say they should not be used by people with pacemakers, epilepsy, heart conditions, multiple sclerosis, inflamed veins or tissue inflamed from a recent injury. They also should be avoided by pregnant women or those who have recently given birth and by women during heavy menstruation.

The machines also should not be used around the eyes, because they may damage optic nerves, said Jennifer Gilbertson, clinical supervisor of adult outpatients at University of Chicago Hospitals. Although their effectiveness as muscle-building, body-toning devices has not been proved, EMS machines do have legitimate medical uses.

"The only benefit of EMS machines is for people with dysfunction, paralysis or loss of muscle use in the lower extremities as a result of an accident," Boone said. "EMS might help maintain muscle size and stave off atrophy, if it were to work at all, but I don't see it giving physical-fitness benefits.

"It is impossible for these machines to give you that look you see on TV. You cannot burn fat without aerobic exercise, and these machine don't provide a mechanism for burning fat," Boone said. "If you don't get rid of the fat, you won't see the muscles."

Those who decide to order one of these gizmos will soon discover that these gadgets, which emphasize "passive" exercise, also require other more traditional means such as sensible eating and cardio work in order to reap benefits.

With the current buzz about these machines, those in the fitness field question what the FDA is doing about the matter.

"We've had a broad history on these kinds of products," said Sharon Snider, an FDA spokeswoman. "There has recently been a plethora of infomercials on these, and we are looking into it right now."

Although Snider would not explain what action might be taken, she did say that the FDA gave premarket clearance to a product called Slendertone Flex, an EMS machine "designed to exercise the abdominal muscles." The device is manufactured by Bio-Medical Research Ltd., headquartered in Galway, Ireland. Attempts to contact the manufacturer were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach the manufacturers of the other machines mentioned. "Any EMS is considered a medical device and needs to be reviewed by the FDA before it can be legally marketed to the public," Snider said. "All [manufacturers] have to do is submit scientific data to show that their product is safe for its intended use.

"Until September 2001, we had not seen any data from any companies," Snider said. "Bio-Med took the necessary steps to receive premarket clearance. We review information on a company-to-company basis." That means that as of late January the other companies were marketing their products without any sort of FDA approval.

Snider said that the FDA did not test the Slendertone Flex for safety or effectiveness and that it relied on the information presented by the manufacturer. There are limits on how Bio-Med may market the Slendertone. The company is cleared to claim that the Slendertone Flex can be used "for the improvement of abdominal muscle tone, for strengthening of the abdominal muscles and for the development of a firmer abdomen."

Beyond the FDA, advertising for the devices can face scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission.

"Any ad or performance claim has to be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence," said Walter Gross, an attorney with the FTC's Consumer Affairs Bureau. "When we evaluate a product, we look at many things, including ODoes it represent a safety or health hazard? What is the monetary injury to consumers if it is a hazard?'

"If we start an investigation into a company, it is non-public, so we cannot confirm or deny [an investigation]," Gross said. "As soon as we take action against a company, then it becomes a public matter."

So for now consumers are left to decide if these products are worth purchasing and to consider whether the company will be available to accept a returned product or deal with any claims.

"The individuals we see on these TV infomercials are models," Boone said. "We don't know how they've gotten that way [taut bodies]. They could have had liposuction for all we know. Looking that way is their business, so they have to look good. I'm quite leery of those commercials and these products."

Belts have a long history

To say that electrical muscle stimulators are "new" or "revolutionary" isn't totally accurate, according to Bob McCoy, owner of the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis.

"These things have been around for more than 100 years," McCoy said. "There sure seems to be a lot of interest in them. The FDA should be looking into them, because they've been out before and they've been pulled off the market before."

One version, the Heidelberg Alternating Current Electric Belt, appeared in a Sears catalog in 1900. Now, a century later, some people believe NASA astronauts use these machines.

"I don't know where people got this idea [that astronauts use these belts]," said Beth Shepherd, NASA's lead strength-conditioning and rehabilitation specialist at Johnson Air Force Base in Houston, where astronauts get in shape. "I've heard this, too, and it is not true. On the space station, the astronauts use a treadmill and two cycles, and both can be used to do upper-body work. In addition, they use a resistive-exercise device for the upper body. On the space shuttle they mostly use a cycle. They do not use [EMS] machines. I wish it were that easy."

-- T.M.

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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