Health experts keep droning on about diet and exercise, but are they overlooking an easier, simpler way to lose weight? What if you could burn calories and slim down without breaking a sweat? That's the promise of many "passive exercise" devices such as the Chi machine (a therapeutic massager) and the AbTronic (a muscle stimulating device). Just plug it in, strap it on, and watch the pounds melt away.
If you've seen the infomercials or read any of the Internet sites touting these products, it's easy to think you've discovered a cutting-edge revolution in weight loss. But these devices aren't anything new. In fact, claims for "effortless weight loss" are about as old as snake oil. The packaging and marketing have evolved over the decades, but one thing has stayed the same: The devices have never delivered on their promises.
"Unless you are exercising your muscles, you are not expending energy," says William McArdle, a nationally recognized expert on exercise and weight loss. "And if you're not expending energy, you won't lose weight. It's as simple as that."
In other words, "passive exercise" is a contradiction in terms. No device can help you effortlessly lose weight. And yet people continue to spend enormous amounts of money on this impossible dream. "People are always looking for an easy way out," McArdle says.
"These electronic abs gadgets don't do a thing to turn a bulging beer belly into a sleek six-pack stomach," said former FTC Chairman Timothy Muris. Over the past decade, the government sued the three manufacturers for false advertising. The FTC won a settlement of over $5 million in the lawsuit against Fast Abs and a $1.4 million settlement against the marketers of the AB Energizer. And the courts in Nevada have held five AbTronic defendants liable for $83 million.
The FTC filed yet another complaint against the makers of a similar device called the "Ab Force" belt. A judge upheld the complaint and barred the makers of the Ab Force from claiming the device caused weight loss, well-defined abs, or was an effective alternative to regular exercise.
Here's a look at two typical, highly promoted devices: The Chi Machine and the AbTronic. You decide if they'll trim your waist -- or your wallet.
The Chi Machine
Advertisements on the Internet make the Chi Machine sound like the biggest medical breakthrough since penicillin. In addition to promoting weight loss, it supposedly boosts energy, strengthens the immune system, eases back pain, and cures allergies. All for slightly less than $500!
After selling and using the machine for more than two years, Linda Basta of Buffalo, New York, is a true believer. She uses it to relax her body, ease aches and pains, and -- as a saleswoman -- to make money. Many of her customers hope to lose weight, and many are satisfied with the results, she says. "I never tell people they are going to lose weight, but a lot of them do," she says.
Basta believes the machine burns off pounds by putting the body in a "better state of balance." The machine also detoxifies the cells and helps cure learning problems, she says.
Up close, the Chi Machine looks less than miraculous. It is essentially a small box with two leg supports. You lie on your back, place your lower legs in the supports, and let the machine rock your body back and forth. (Judging from the advertisements, the machine is especially popular among attractive young women in unitards.)
Some marketers proclaim the Chi Machine is "FDA approved," meaning that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given its approval. However, this alleged stamp of approval is misleading. Though therapeutic massagers are regulated by the FDA, they are not necessarily examined by the agency and they don't have to go through any approval process.
To its credit, the company that manufactures the Chi Machine, Hsin Ten Enterprise USA Inc., doesn't promote the machine as a slimming device. "There's no scientific evidence that [the machine] speeds weight loss, and we aren't allowed to make that claim," says Chris, a company representative who declined to give her last name. According to the company web site, the machine is useful for "local muscle relaxation and temporary relief from minor muscular aches due to overexertion."
If you've wandered into the world of television infomercials lately, you've probably seen a pitch for the AbTtronic, "The Future of Fitness." In the future, fitness apparently won't require any actual effort.
The AbTronic is a slender belt that sends jolts of electricity to your muscles. With this device strapped around your midsection, you can feel your muscles twitch, or "exercise" while you read a book, watch TV, or cook dinner. According to the ads, it strengthens muscles, trims the waistline, tones the butt, removes love handles, even flattens a stomach after pregnancy. The actors in the commercial have the bodies to prove it.
The AbTronic is just one of many "electronic muscle stimulators" (or EMS devices) that promise an intense workout without the sweat. An ad for a similar product, the Tone-a-tronic, even claims that 45 minutes of muscle twitching is "equivalent to three hundred situps, one hundred pushups, and one hundred scissor lifts." If only it were true.
Another device that was heavily advertised was the Ab Circle Pro machine, whose makers claimed that if you used it only three minutes a day, you'd lose 10 pounds in two weeks.
In 2012, however, in the largest Federal Trade Commission settlement involving an exercise machine, Ab Circle Pro promoters agreed to settle deceptive advertising charges by refunding up to $25 million to consumers who bought the device."
EMS devices may help increase flexibility, but they can't "tone" problem areas or melt way pounds, McArdle says. While EMS devices really do work muscles -- unlike therapeutic massagers -- it's not enough to speed weight loss. "You'd burn more calories by walking around the block," he says. "These machines aren't worth the effort."
McArdle says any device or diet or exercise that promises to remove fat from just one part of the body is doomed to fail. Our genes determine where we store our fat, and no amount of wiggling or jiggling or twitching will change that. McArdle, for one, tends to pile up fat in his belly. If he somehow managed to get rid of every ounce of extra fat in his body, the belly fat would be the last to go. "I'm resigned to the fact that I'll never have washboard abs," he says.
In this day and age, it's a brave admission.
FTC Charges Three Top-selling Electronic Abdominal Exercise Belts with Making False Claims. http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2002/05/projectabsurd.htm
Marketer of Electronic Abdominal Exercise Belt Charged with Making False Claims. http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2003/10/abforce.htm
Interview with William McArdle, PhD, a professor emeritus at Queens College
Interview with Linda Basta of Buffalo, New York, Chi Machine saleswoman
Interview with Sharon Snider, spokeswoman, Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Ab Circle Pro marketers settle deceptive marketing case, Los Angeles Times, August 24, 2012. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/24/business/la-fi-weight-loss-settlement-20120824
Passive exercise devices, William T. Jarvis PhD, National Council Against Health Fraud.
Regulators Crack Down on Abdominal Stimulators, by Shari Roan, April 1, 2002, Los Angeles Times
Federal Trade Commission. Administrative Law Judge Bars Misleading Claims for Ab Force Belt. September 2004. http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2004/09/telebrandsid.htm
Federal Trade Commission. FTC Flexes Its Muscles in Ab Energizer Case. April 2005. http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2005/04/abenergizer.htm